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May 27, 2017

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Warrant for ferry's captain as divers enter hull

By Park Chan-kyong

JINDO, South Korea -- Divers battled strong currents and near zero visibility Friday to finally enter a South Korean ferry two days after it sank, as investigators sought arrest warrants against the captain and two of his crew.

The breakthrough by dive teams came more than 48 hours after the 6,825-ton Sewol capsized — a delay that has incensed the relatives of the 268 people still missing from the disaster.

The unfolding tragedy was compounded by the apparent suicide of a high school vice principal, who had been rescued from the 6,825-ton Sewol that sank Wednesday morning with hundreds of his students trapped inside.

After several attempts, two divers managed to pry open a door and enter the cargo section on Friday afternoon, a senior coast guard official said.

Hours later another two-man team accessed one of the cabins, but found nothing.

"The search operation will continue through the night," the official said.

The confirmed death toll stood at 28.

"Visibility is almost non-existent. You can hardly see your hand in front of you face," said one diver when he returned to the harbor at nearby Jindo island.

The coast guard said a joint investigation team of police and prosecutors had applied for arrest warrants for captain Lee Joon-seok, 52, and two crew.

The charges were not specified.

Earlier, prosecutors said preliminary investigations showed Lee had handed the helm to his third officer before the ferry capsized.

Of the 475 people on board when the Sewol capsized, only 179 were rescued and no new survivors have been found since Wednesday.

Three giant, floating cranes reached the rescue site, but regional coast guard commander Kim Soo-hyun stressed they would not begin lifting the multi-deck ferry until they were sure there were no survivors inside.

"I want to be clear: There won't be any salvage work done against the will of the families," Kim aid.

More than 350 of those on board were from the Danwon High School in Ansan city just south of Seoul.

Among the parents of those students still missing there was bitter resentment at what they saw as the inadequacy of the official response.

"It's been two days but no one has been brought out alive," complained Lee Yong-gi, whose son was among the missing students.

"I firmly believe that the kids are alive. We need to rescue them as soon as possible. But officials are dragging their feet," Lee told AFP.

Local police said they found the body Friday of Danwon High School Vice Principal, Kang Min-Kyu, who had managed to escape the Sewol as it sank.

Sources cited by local media said he was found hanging by his belt from a tree next to the gymnasium. Yonhap news agency cited a suicide note found in his wallet. 'Surviving alone is too painful...I take full responsibility," the note said.

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