Daejeon: South Korea laid to rest 46 sailors killed in the sinking of a Navy warship during an emotional and solemn burial on Thursday, as officials vowed retaliation against those responsible for what many believe was a North Korean attack.
Wailing families placed white chrysanthemums, burned incense and bowed in front of the framed photos of the men before their cremated ashes were buried at the country`s national cemetery in the central city of Daejeon. Buddhist and Christian clergy offered prayers and a dirge was played.
Some mothers clad in black Korean traditional mourning dress wailed uncontrollably, touching photos of their sons and their urns wrapped in white cloth.
"It`s your mother! Please answer me! Please answer me!" one mother shouted.
The sailors went down with the 1,200-ton Cheonan near the tense western sea border with North Korea on March 26 shortly after it was torn apart by what investigators believe was an underwater blast from outside the ship.
The bodies of 40 of the sailors were recovered, while six others remain unaccounted for and are presumed dead. Belongings of the missing were burned and the ashes were among those buried on Thursday.
South Korea has not directly blamed its Cold War-era rival North Korea, but suspicion has focused on Pyongyang given its history of provocations and attacks on the South. South Korea`s defence minister said this week the blast was most likely caused by a torpedo attack. North Korea has denied any role.
Earlier on Thursday, sirens blared across South Korea when the funeral started at the 2nd Fleet headquarters in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, the ship`s home base. Warships anchored there sounded whistles, and seamen aboard saluted when the vehicles carrying the ashes left for the cemetery.
A sombre President Lee Myung-bak and his wife — who joined 2,800 mourners at the ceremony — paid homage to the sailors, while buglers played taps. Former president Chun Doo-hwan, lawmakers and military leaders also paid respects to those who died in one of South Korea`s worst naval disasters.
The name of each sailor was read out while Lee, clad in a black suit and tie, placed military decorations on a giant alter below photos of each man. They had all been posthumously promoted by one rank in recent days.
"The Cheonan is engraved as history into the people`s hearts and your honourable sacrifice is being reborn as patriotism," Chief Petty Officer Kim Hyun-rae, one of the 58 survivors of the disaster, said in an address to the funeral.
Tears welled up in the eyes of President Lee as he listened to Kim`s speech.
About 3,000 white and black balloons were released into the air.
The Cheonan was on a routine patrol before it split in two and sank near the disputed western sea border, a scene of three bloody sea battles between the rival Koreas that remain locked in a state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce instead of a peace treaty.