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Manhunt for fugitive ferry owner closing in: prosecution

2014/05/27 16:22

INCHEON, May 27 (Yonhap) -- Prosecutors said Tuesday that they are closing in on the fugitive owner of the sunken ferry Sewol, who is wanted in connection with one of the country's worst disasters that has left more than 300 people dead or missing.

The search for Yoo Byung-eun, the head of the now-defunct predecessor of the ferry's operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., has accelerated over the past few days after the reward for information leading to his capture was increased 10-fold, prosecutors said.

The 73-year-old Yoo, who is also a church leader and an ex-convict, is wanted for a string of corruption charges and irregularities that are believed to have contributed to the sinking of the ferry off the southwest coast on April 16.

On Sunday, Incheon District Prosecutors' Office in the western port city of Incheon hiked the reward for information leading to the arrest of Yoo and his eldest son, Dae-kyun, to 500 million won (US$489,000) and 100 million won, respectively, from 50 million won and 30 million won.

Prosecutors suspect that Yoo effectively owns Chonghaejin Marine through two of his sons and is responsible for the ship's allegedly lax safety practices. Motivated by profit, the operator overloaded the ship with passengers and cargo even though its balance was substantially compromised after remodeling.

"The massive manhunt for Yoo Byung-eun is being carried out in a particular region and the prosecution, at this time, is checking the hometowns (of Yoo's close aides) on the possibility that he may have already escaped that region," Jeong Soon-sin, a prosecutor investigating the case, told a press briefing.

The prosecution office said it has also arrested Lee Jae-ok, a 49-year-old medical professor and one of Yoo's close aides, on suspicion of helping the owner evade the massive dragnet.

Lee is under suspicion of planning Yoo's life as a fugitive and helping him evade detection for weeks, prosecutors said, adding that he also heads one of Yoo's foundations as well.

The prosecution office also sought an arrest warrant for a 51-year-old man on charges of helping Yoo Dae-kyun escape from his house in southern Seoul.

Earlier in the day, President Park Geun-hye ordered the quick arrest of the mysterious owner, saying he is the "root cause" of the tragic sinking and must be brought to justice.

khj@yna.co.kr

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