S. Korea halts search for bodies from sunken ferry

SEOUL - South Korea on Tuesday finally called off the search for bodies from the sunken Sewol ferry, nearly seven months after the vessel capsized with the loss of more than 300 lives.

Declaring "the end of the underwater search", Maritime Minister Lee Ju-Young said he deeply regretted that nine victims of the April 16 disaster remained unaccounted for.

"The government deployed as many resources as possible... to bring the last missing person to the families.

"But the situation in the ship has become too difficult for search operations to continue," Lee said.

The announcement came just hours before a court was to deliver a verdict and sentence in the murder trial of Sewol captain Lee Jun-Seok who, along with several senior crew members, has been charged with homicide through "wilful negligence" over the ferry sinking.

Weather and increasingly dangerous sea conditions permitting, divers have been carrying out near daily missions to scour the upturned vessel.

Of the 476 people on board the 6,825-tonne Sewol when it capsized, 325 were high school students on an organised outing. Only 75 students survived.

The body of a female student was recovered late last month, the first to be retrieved since July 18.

Relatives of those still unaccounted for have remained in the southern island of Jindo - closest to the disaster site - since April, despite warnings that their loved ones may have been washed out to sea.

The South Korean government had vowed not to bring in the heavy lifting cranes without the agreement of the victims' families, but the recovery teams warned that time was fast running out for the divers as winter approaches.

The families were scheduled to hold their own press briefing later in the day.