SEOUL - The South Korean government announced Wednesday it would raise the Sewol ferry which sank a year ago with the loss of more than 300 lives - mostly schoolchildren.
Bringing the Sewol to the surface has been a key demand of the victims' families. They have stepped up their campaign in recent weeks, organising a series of large-scale protests that have seen clashes with riot police using water cannon and pepper spray.
The Ministry of Public Safety and Security said the salvage operation would likely begin in September off the southwestern island of Jindo, where the Sewol sank on April 16 last year.
The 6,825-tonne vessel lies more than 40 meters down on the seabed and bringing it to the surface represents a substantial challenge.
"There are many technical risks and uncertainties... but we decided to lift the ship intact in line with the wishes of the families," Public Safety Ministry Park In-Yong told reporters.
The ministry estimated the cost at somewhere between $90 million and $140 million and said the operation could take as long as 18 months.
"We will take thorough measures not to lose the bodies of the missing," said Maritime Minister Yoo Ki-June.
The overloaded Sewol was carrying 476 people, including 325 students from a high school in the town of Ansan, when it sank. Only 75 students survived.
A total of 295 bodies were recovered from the ferry but nine remained unaccounted for when divers finally called off the dangerous search last November.
The families of those still missing had spearheaded calls for the ferry to be brought to the surface, even though there is no guarantee any bodies remain inside.
Yoo said the maritime ministry would immediately begin a bidding process to select a company to handle the salvage operation.
Strong currents and muddy waters greatly hampered the search last year, leaving two divers dead and dozens injured.
The victims' families welcomed Wednesday's announcement but voiced concern over whether the authorities would fully follow through.
"We won't believe the promise until we see the lifted ship with our own eyes," they said in a statement.
President Park Geun-Hye, whose popularity ratings plunged after her administration was widely criticised for its response to the disaster, promised on the first anniversary of the tragedy last week that all efforts would be made to salvage the ship.
Although the decision meets one of their key requests, the victims' families have vowed to continue their protests in the coming weeks to push their demand for a fully independent inquiry into the sinking.
The accident was largely blamed on the ship's illegal redesign and overloading.
But it exposed deeper-rooted problems of corruption, lax safety standards and regulatory failings attributed to the country's relentless push for economic growth.