S Korea to open bids for Sewol ferry salvage

SEOUL - South Korea is to open bidding on Friday for contractors seeking to take on the massive task of raising the sunken Sewol ferry 130 feet (40 metres) from the seabed.

The 6,825-tonne vessel sank off the southwest coast in April 2014, with the loss of more than 300 lives, most of them school children.

Bringing the Sewol to the surface has been a key demand of the victims' families, and Seoul announced last month that it planned to salvage the ship.

"We will thoroughly evaluate each bidder on its skills to lift the entire ship intact and safely handle any fuel leak and other potential safety accidents that may occur," Seoul's maritime ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

The successful bidder will be announced by the end of July with the goal of beginning the salvage operation in September, it added.

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 led the campaigns for the ferry to be brought to the surface.

Strong currents and muddy waters at the site of the sunken vessel greatly hampered the search efforts last year, leaving two divers dead and dozens injured.

The ministry earlier estimated the salvage project -- unprecedented in scale in the South -- would cost up to US$140 million (S$187 m) and take as long as one and a half years.

The shock accident -- blamed on the ship's illegal redesign and overloading left unchecked by regulators -- prompted calls to overhaul the nation's lax safety standards and tackle deep-rooted corruption.