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46 South Korean sailors missing after naval ship sinks

Forty-six sailors were missing Saturday after a South Korean naval vessel sank along the country’s disputed western sea border with North Korea, an incident that military officials here at first believed was caused by an attack by their northern enemies.

Fears of possible renewed warfare filled South Korea’s capital with dread overnight. As naval ships rescued 58 crewmen from icy waters, President Lee Myung-bak and Defense Ministry officials convened an emergency meeting.

For hours, officials believed the ship had struck a mine or was hit by a torpedo late Friday, and Lee dispatched an armada of ships to investigate and search for imperiled crewmen.

The possibility of an outbreak of hostilities between the two Koreas caused the South Korean currency, the won, to slip against the U.S. dollar. Pentagon officials said the U.S. was monitoring developments.

But by dawn, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said they could not conclude that the reclusive North was behind the sinking of the 1,200-ton patrol boat Cheonan, which was on routine duty near Baengnyeong Island with 104 crew members when it began taking on water.

An official from the president’s office said satellite pictures showed no sign of hostile military activity in the area. Other officials, noting that the area was known to be rocky, speculated that the ship may have had an accident.

An apparent explosion ripped a large hole in the ship’s stern, the Yonhap news agency reported. The blast shut down the engine, and the ship swiftly sank as the crew jumped into the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea.

Half a dozen naval ships and two coast guard vessels, along with helicopters, converged on the site. At one point, skittish troops on alert for attacks opened fire on what officials later said was a flock of birds.

One Baengnyeong resident told Yonhap that he thought he heard sounds of a gun battle. “The loud firing sound remained for about 15 minutes, while I watched TV. I never heard such loud firing sound in my entire life . . . and the sound was definitely different from those heard from usual drills,” he said.

The ship’s foundering along the disputed Yellow Sea border occurred amid growing tensions between the two Koreas as the North refuses to accede to international pressure to return to six-party talks on dismantling its nuclear arsenal.

Only hours before the naval incident, North Korea had threatened “unpredictable strikes.” In November, North and South Korea exchanged gunfire for the first time in years, damaging ships from both sides. In January, the North fired about 30 artillery rounds not far from Baengnyeong, and the South responded by firing about 100 rounds.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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