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Published: Tuesday April 29, 2014 MYT 4:15:29 PM
Updated: Tuesday April 29, 2014 MYT 4:15:29 PM

South Korean president apologises to ferry victims' families

South Korean President Park Geun-hye (C) listens to a family member of a missing passenger who was on South Korean ferry "Sewol", which sank at the sea off Jindo, during her visit to a gym where family members gathered, in Jindo April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

South Korean President Park Geun-hye (C) listens to a family member of a missing passenger who was on South Korean ferry "Sewol", which sank at the sea off Jindo, during her visit to a gym where family members gathered, in Jindo April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL (Reuters) - President Park Geun-hye apologised on Tuesday to families of the 302 victims in a ferry capsize and pledged to revamp safety regulations, as an investigation proceeded into South Korea's worst maritime accident in 21 years.

Park and her government have been criticised over the authorities' slow response to the sinking of the ferry on April 16, and for lax regulation of the shipping industry.

Harrowing tales of those who drowned have emerged as bodies were recovered. One diver described finding the corpses of a boy and a girl tied together using their life-vests.

Park was jeered by some relatives when she visited them in Jindo, the centre of the rescue effort, in the wake of the disaster. Her prime minister has offered to resign over the handling of rescue efforts.

She described the decision by some crew members to flee the sinking ship as "like a murderous act".

"I apologise to the people that so many precious lives were lost," Park said, according to a statement issued by the government.

"We should be firmly determined to remake from scratch the whole safety system of the Republic of Korea," she added.

Earlier, Park, wearing a black suit, left a flower at a memorial to the victims near a school in Ansan on the outskirts of Seoul.

Most of the dead are children from a single year grade at the Danwon High School.

Investigating prosecutors have detained the captain and other crew of the ship, raided the offices of shipping company Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd and the homes of two brothers who own the largest stakes in the company via an investment vehicle.

They have also raided the home of Yoo Byeung-eun, the brothers' father, although Yoo through his lawyer has denied he was involved in the running of the shipping company and he has no stake in it.

A day before Yoo's holding company was declared bankrupt by a Korean court in the 1999, its assets, including the shipping company, were folded into another company that was then acquired by an investment vehicle in which the two brothers have the largest stake.

Yoo spent four years in jail for fraud in the 1990s.

The two brothers, Yoo Dae-kyun and Yoo Hyuk-ki, have a near 40 percent stake in the shipping company via an investment vehicle I-One-I.

Prosecutors and South Korea's financial regulators are looking at the shareholding structure of the group around Chonghaejin and at whether money was funnelled to overseas units of the group.

They are also looking at its links to a church co-founded by Yoo Byeung-eun and have raided offices in one of the church branches.

Family members, other company executives and crew have been barred from leaving South Korea.

The Chief Executive of Chonghaejin Kim Han-sik was questioned by prosecutors in the port city of Incheon on Friday, where the shipping company's offices are located.

Investigations have centred on whether the sinking was caused by human error, if crew were responsible for the deaths, as many of them fled the ship and left the passengers on board, on whether the vessel was overloaded with cargo and on possible mechanical defects in the ship.

Divers are still recovering bodies from the ship, which was carrying 476 passengers and crew, when it sank on a routine crossing in calm weather.

(This corrected version of the story deletes erroneous reference to 'last month' from lead paragraph.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Incheon; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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