SEOUL - South Korea's biggest and most bizarre manhunt, linked to a ferry disaster in which hundreds drowned, has come full circle at the compound of a sect known for its organic ice cream as police on Thursday used earth movers to search for tunnels.
Police have raided the grounds of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Anseong, a two-hour drive south of Seoul, twice as they try to flush out church co-founder Yoo Byung-un, 73, South Korea's most wanted man since the Sewol ferry sank in April killing more than 300 people, mostly children from the same school.
But, so far, Yoo, a businessman and photographer who was once jailed for fraud, has eluded capture in a case which has become an embarrassment for authorities already under pressure for their handling of the disaster.
Yoo is wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion stemming from a web of business holdings centred on I-One-I, an investment vehicle owned by his sons that ran the shipping company, Chonghaejin Marine.
Chonghaejin owned the Sewol which sank off the southwest coast on April 16 on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.
The hunt for Yoo, who once held a photographic exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, has sent authorities chasing leads from the sect compound to remote towns in southwestern Jeolla province - and back again to the compound.
The latest raid began on Wednesday and involved 6,000 police and investigators. Besides Yoo and one son, prosecutors said they were looking for two middle-aged female sect members known as "mamas" accused of helping him escape. Dogs roamed the compound sniffing for scent from Yoo's belongings.
Last month, police arrested a man on suspicion that he delivered organic food grown and marketed by the church to Yoo, as well as one of his drivers. Some church members handed out ice cream to police and journalists on Wednesday. Others threatened to fight police.
One said church members would protect Yoo. "I don't know where he is, but he won't turn up until everything is clear about why the ferry sank," a man who said he had been a sect member for 30 years, told Reuters outside the compound. "I respect him as a mentor. He is our fellow believer and we will protect him."