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Page last updated at 12:49 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 13:49 UK

South Korea sailors describe mystery ship blast

Crew of the Cheonan at a press conference in Seoul (7 April 2010)
The ship's captain said he had not given up hope for the missing

South Korean sailors who escaped a warship which sank last month have said they felt a large "external blast" before the ship went down.

Speaking publicly for the first time since the incident, the sailors said the ship had been operating normally before it sank off Baengnyeong Island.

Officials in Seoul say they still do not know what happened to the Cheonan, which was carrying 104 crew.

Two of the crew are known to have died, and 44 are still missing.

Officials have said the incident will be thoroughly investigated and have cautioned against speculation that North Korea could be to blame.

The dozens of survivors, many of them wearing hospital clothing, told reporters in Seoul the ship had been on a routine operation before the blast and there had been no indication of any problems.

Sr Chief Petty Officer Oh Seong-tak said his body had been "thrown up in the air" by the blast, which took out the ship's power.

"I was hit by a computer and fainted. When I woke up, it was all dark, I could not see anything. I felt for the the walls, looking for a door, but I could not find the door," he said.

"And then I felt something under my foot and I touched it and realised it was the door at the bottom. That means our ship was inclined at 90 degrees immediately after a big bang sound."

The office said the blast was "likely caused by an external factor rather than an internal explosion or malfunction".

Awaiting return

The ship's captain, Cdr Choi Won-il, who wiped away tears during the news conference, said he still hoped some of the missing crew would be found alive.

Map

"I am still waiting for the rest of my soldiers to report their return," the Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying.

Cdr Choi said he had no indication of the cause of the blast.

"I knew the area like the back of my hand and was still unable to detect any unusual symptoms," he said.

Officials have said the salvage effort could last a month.

A total of 58 people were rescued from the bow of the ship soon after it started sinking but efforts to find the missing crew were hampered by bad weather and strong currents.

Rescuers had hoped some people could be trapped in water-tight sections of the ship, but the search was called off on Saturday.

Two people were also killed during the rescue operations - one military diver who lost consciousness while searching the wreck and one person killed when a fishing boat involved in the search sank.

South Korea has said it does not yet know what caused the disaster and has urged caution. But officials have not ruled out a possible attack from North Korea.

South Korea's Defence Minister Kim Tae-young has speculated that a torpedo or mine could have caused the blast, either intentionally or in error.

Pyongyang has made no official comment about the incident.



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