South Korean officials have ended underwater search operations for the bodies still missing from a ferry that capsized seven months ago.
Maritime Minister Lee Ju-Young said Tuesday that the decision to halt the search operations was agreed to by the families of the nine passengers who still remain missing after the ship, Sewol, sank in April.
Lee expressed regret that divers were unable to retrieve all the bodies of the passengers.
“I am sincerely sorry to announce the end of the search operation while not being able to keep my word to continue searching until the very last one is found,” Lee said.
Lee added that the South Korean government used every means at its disposal to recover the last bodies and return them to the families, but the efforts had met with difficulties.
According to Lee, the approach of winter and the structural weakening of the vessel, which lies underwater in an area of strong currents, made search operations dangerous for divers.
The announcement to halt the search came hours before a court in the southern city of Gwangju is to issue verdicts on the vessel’s crew members charged with negligence and abandonment of passengers in the disaster.
Prosecutors have demanded a death penalty for the ship’s captain, Lee Joon-Seok, and life sentences for three other crew members.
The passenger ship capsized off South Korea’s southern coast on April 16 while carrying 476 people, out of which 325 were students from a high school in the city of Ansan, just south of the capital, Seoul. Some 172 of those on board were rescued.
Sewol was reportedly carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo — more than three times what an inspector said it could safely carry. It sank en route to the resort Island of Jeju.