South Korea ferry toll reaches 244 as Park meets relatives

South Korean President Park Geun-hye (right) consoles a relative of a passenger near Jindo, South Korea, 4 May 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption Ms Park said she felt "a sense of unlimited responsibility" for the disaster

The confirmed death toll from the South Korea ferry disaster has reached 244, officials say, as President Park Geun-hye met relatives of those on board.

Ms Park told family members that those responsible for the ferry sinking on 16 April would be "punished severely".

The Sewol ferry had 476 passengers on board when it sank - 174 were rescued, and 58 remain unaccounted for.

Prosecutors say the ferry owner ignored safety warnings and allowed the ship to be overloaded.

Ms Park visited Jindo island, close to where the ship sank, on Sunday. It was her second meeting with the family members.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Some relatives protested on Sunday against delays in the search and recovery operation
Image copyright AP
Image caption Vigils and rallies have been held to pay tribute to the victims
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Sewol ferry sank on 16 April on its way to Jeju island

Speaking to relatives, she said: "I feel a sense of unlimited responsibility... it is heart-rending to imagine how you must be feeling."

"A thorough investigation will be conducted to find those who were responsible and criminally at fault... and they will be punished severely," she added.

Authorities are investigating whether the ship sank from overloading and changes in the structure of the ship.

Anger has also been directed at the ship's captain and crew members, who delayed giving evacuation orders.

Last week, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned amid criticism of the government's handling of the disaster.

Divers have been navigating the sunken ship in an attempt to retrieve the remaining bodies. However, the search has been hampered by strong currents, debris, and poor visibility.

Several divers were suffering from decompression sickness, Yonhap news agency reported on Friday.

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