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Church raided in S Korean ferry disaster probe

Scores of South Korean investigators on Wednesday raided a sprawling religious compound in a widening probe into last month's ferry disaster in which hundreds died.

SEOUL: South Korean investigators on Wednesday raided a sprawling religious compound believed to be the hideout of a fugitive billionaire as part of a widening probe into a ferry disaster that killed hundreds.

The raid began shortly before noon as more than 1,000 riot police, backed by 20 firetrucks and ambulances, readied for action outside a 50-acre (20.2 hectare) church and farming complex in Anseong 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Seoul.

After an eight-hour operation, TV footage showed seven vehicles packed with investigators leaving the compound.

Investigators wanted to detain Yoo Byung-eun, reclusive patriarch of the family that owns ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine, for questioning over his role in the company, as well as suspected tax evasion and embezzlement.

But as of 8:00pm (1100 GMT), there was no report of Yoo's detention, sparking speculation he had already slipped out of the compound, said cable news network YTN.

Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn said in parliament he was not sure whether Yoo was still hiding in the compound.

"However, I will do my best so that he can receive a jail sentence as desired by people," he said.

Yoo, 73, has no direct stake in Chonghaejin, but his children and close aides control it through a complex web of holding companies.

Prosecutors suspect Yoo is responsible for unsafe business practices which contributed to the ferry's sinking last month, including overloading the ship and remodelling it to squeeze in more passengers and cargo.

Hundreds of followers of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, a splinter church group founded by one of Yoo's relatives, have been holed up in the church for two weeks.

The church has warned that any police effort to force entry would be regarded as "religious persecution" and lead to a "dangerous" situation.

But they briefly lifted the blockade on Wednesday through negotiations with prosecutors to avoid a showdown with police. Journalists were not allowed in.

The church insisted it had no connection with Yoo, but former followers who left the institution described him as its leader who was worshipped as a demi-god.

Prosecutors have said that charges against Yoo will include embezzlement and tax evasion but declined to give a full list of alleged offences until he is officially arrested.

Yoo, who has described himself as an artist and photographer, has a colourful and chequered past. He was once convicted of fraud when a company under his control went bankrupt.

The church has an estimated 20,000 followers and, under a different name, made headlines in 1987 following the mass suicide of 32 members.

Yoo was investigated but cleared of any involvement in that incident.

Prosecutors have already raided Yoo's home and his eldest son, Yoo Dae-gyun, is also being sought after ignoring an official summons for questioning.

The 6,825-tonne Sewol was carrying 476 people when it capsized and sank on April 16. As of Wednesday, 288 people have been confirmed dead, with 16 still unaccounted for.

The Sewol's captain and three crew members were charged last week with manslaughter through gross negligence. Five Chonghaejin officials have already been arrested for possible criminal negligence.

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