Seoul: South Korea said on Tuesday it was calling off a search for nine passengers still missing from a ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 people, as a court prepared to rule in a trial at which the vessel`s captain may face the death penalty.
A three-judge panel in the southern city of Gwangju will hand down verdicts and sentencing later in the prosecution of ferry captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, as well as 14 crew members, who face jail terms if convicted.
The overloaded ferry, the Sewol, capsized on April 16 while making a turn during a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju in the country`s worst maritime disaster in decades.
The approach of winter and the structural weakening of the vessel that has been under water for seven months in strong currents made it dangerous for divers to continue searching for those missing, Maritime Minister Lee Ju-young told a briefing.
"I am sincerely sorry to announce the end of the search operation while not being able to keep my word to continue searching until the very last one is found," Lee said.
The decision to end the search was agreed by the families of the nine passengers still missing who have kept a vigil on a southern island near the scene of the disaster, Lee said.
Only 172 of the ferry`s 476 passengers and crew were rescued. Of the 304 confirmed dead or still listed as missing, 250 were school children.
The last body to be recovered was on Oct. 28, more than 100 days after the previous one was pulled from the vessel.
Lee said officials will discuss the issue of raising the vessel with families of the missing passengers.
The captain and three officers have been charged with homicide, while the other crew members face lesser charges, including negligence.