SKorean naval ship sinks near NKorea; 46 missing |

SKorean naval ship sinks near NKorea; 46 missing

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korean authorities stepped up searches for 46 sailors still missing today, hours after a naval ship sank near a disputed sea border with North Korea.

Navy and coast guard vessels, as well as air force planes, were searching the waters near South Korea’s Baeknyeong Island where the 1,200-ton Cheonan sank during a routine patrolling mission.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said rescuers had picked up 58 sailors but 46 still were missing.

President Lee Myung-bak ordered officials to find the cause of the sinking quickly while keeping in mind all possibilities, presidential spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye said today. There was no indication North Korea was to blame, but troops kept a vigilant watch.

Lee reconvened a security meeting and instructed officials to make all efforts to rescue the missing sailors, the spokeswoman said. Kim added there were no signs of North Korean troop movement.

Some senior government officials have speculated the sinking may have been an accident, not an attack, South Korean media said.

Friday’s accident happened hours after North Korea’s military threatened “unpredictable strikes” against the U.S. and South Korea in anger over a report the two countries plan to prepare for possible instability in the totalitarian country.

The two Koreas remain locked in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

Since then, the two Koreas have fought three bloody skirmishes in the Yellow Sea waters. And in January, North Korea fired about 30 artillery rounds not far from Baeknyeong; the South Korean military fired 100 warning shots in response.

Unidentified military officials told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that an explosion tore a hole into the Cheonan’s rear hull, shutting off the engine, wiping out the power and quickly taking the ship down. A number of crew members jumped into the water, Yonhap said.

Nearby Baeknyeong Island, four hours by boat from the South Korean port of Incheon but just 10 miles from North Korea, was turned into a triage center, with islanders helping to treat injured crew members, according to cable network YTN.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday the U.S. was closely monitoring the accident, but there was no evidence that could indicate North Korea’s involvement.

“It’s looking more and more like it was just an accident that happens on a ship,” Carl Baker, an expert on Korean military relations at the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu, said by telephone.

He said Pyongyang was unlikely to attack the far more powerful South Korean military.