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Tensions Rise Over Korean Warship Sinking

Sunday, 25 Apr 2010 07:32 PM

SEOUL — A torpedo attack is among the "most likely" causes of the sinking of a South Korean warship near the disputed border with North Korea, the defence minister said Sunday, amid rising tensions with Pyongyang.

The 12,000-tonne corvette Cheonan sank after being split in half in a mystery blast in the Yellow Sea on March 26, leaving 40 sailors confirmed dead and six still unaccounted for.

"A bubble jet caused by a heavy torpedo (attack) is thought to be one of the most likely things to be blamed, but various other possibilities are also under review," Defence Minister Kim Tae-Young said Sunday.

Shortly after the vessel sank, Kim said a mine or a torpedo could have been to blame, but Seoul subsequently rowed back and has since been careful to avoid pointing a finger at Pyongyang.

Several unidentified sources have been quoted in recent days as saying an underwater explosion was the cause of the sinking, but Kim is the first minister to make the link explicitly since a probe into the sinking began.

Initial inspections of the stern, salvaged from the seabed on April 15, and the bow, which was raised on Saturday, indicate it was hit by the force of a blast, officials say.

Live local television footage of Saturday's salvage of the bow showed a hatch had come off its hinges and a chimney was missing.

Yoon Duk-Yong, co-chairman of a joint international investigation team including US and Australian experts, issued an interim report Sunday that no soot, melting or any explosion holes were found on the ship.

"In conclusion, after the initial visual inspection of the severed surface and the inside/outside of the hull, we assume the cause is underwater explosion," Yoon said in the report.

"And looking at the form of the deformation, it is highly likely that a non-contact explosion was the cause rather than a contact explosion," Yoon said, without specifying what type of explosive had been detonated.

Prime Minister Chung Un-Chan on Sunday declared a five-day "national mourning period" for the 46 sailors until Thursday, with public shrines set up in Seoul and other cities nationwide for citizens to pay tribute.

Pyongyang has accused the South's "war maniacs" of seeking to shift the blame for the tragedy to the North.

The disputed Yellow Sea border was the scene of deadly naval clashes between the North and South in 1999 and 2002 and of a firefight last November that left a North Korean patrol boat in flames.

The communist North on Friday seized South Korean-owned assets at a mountain resort, warning that the two countries were on the brink of war over the sinking.

On Saturday, the North warned it would use "all means, including the nuclear deterrent" if it was invaded by the United States and South Korea.

The tensions prompted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say she hoped there would be "no miscalculation" that could spark a new war between the Koreas.

South Korea President Lee Myung-Bak on Wednesday vowed a "resolute" response to the Cheonan disaster, calling the worst peacetime loss of life for South Korea's navy a "wake-up call" and describing the North as the world's "most belligerent" state.

Ties between the two Koreas appeared to have entered a new phase of reconciliation after an historic inter-Korean summit in 2000 but have spiralled downwards since Lee's government took power in 2008.

Lee has taken a tougher stance toward Pyongyang, while the North's nuclear weapons development sparked international condemnation and sanctions.

Hwang Jang-Yop, a high-ranking North Korean defector, on Thursday said it was "obvious" the communist regime's leader Kim Jong-Il was behind the sinking, accusing him of wanting to create chaos on the Korean peninsula.

Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.

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SEOUL — A torpedo attack is among the "most likely" causes of the sinking of a South Korean warship near the disputed border with North Korea, the defence minister said Sunday, amid rising tensions with Pyongyang.
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