SEOUL: Bone fragments recovered from the wreck of South Korea's Sewol ferry are from an animal and not human remains, the maritime ministry said Tuesday (Mar 28).
Authorities had earlier announced the pieces were human - raising the prospect of closure for families of at least some of the nine passengers whose bodies were never found after the 2014 maritime disaster.
But the ministry corrected its initial statement, declaring: "According to test results by the National Forensic Service, they have been confirmed to be seven animal bone fragments."
They were suspected to be pig bones, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, citing forensic officials.
The wreck was brought to the surface last week in a complex salvage operation, nearly three years after it went down with the death of more than 300 people, and placed onto a semi-submersible ship that will finally bring it to shore.
Almost all the victims were schoolchildren and nine bodies were still unaccounted for, raising the prospect that they could still be inside the vessel and leaving their families emotionally trapped in the grieving process.
Lee Cheol Jo, a senior official in charge of the salvage operation, had told reporters the fragments recovered on the deck of the semi-submersible Dockwise White Marlin, ranged in length from four to 18 centrimetres.
"They are suspected to have been found among sand that leaked out from an opening at the entrance of the vessel or through a window," Lee had said, adding that officials from the National Forensic Service, as well as the coast guard and the health ministry had been dispatched to identify the remains.
The process was expected to take around two to three weeks.
The operation to raise the 145-metre ferry, which has cost more than US$82 million, is believed to be among the largest-ever recoveries of a wreck in one piece.
The salvage operation had been a key demand of the families of the nine missing victims - four schoolchildren, two teachers and a married couple and their child - who were moving to Jeju, the ship's destination, to start a new life.
Divers wrapped up their search in November 2014, and since then a handful of relatives set up home at Paengmok, a port an hour away from the accident site.
The semi-submersible is expected to set off for Mokpo, a large port on the southern coast some 87 kilometres (54 miles) away, on Thursday.
As part of the salvage operation, underwater barriers were set up around the wreck and searches were to be carried out in the area as well as on board the Sewol.
The sinking, one of the country's worst-ever maritime disasters, dealt a crushing blow to now-ousted president Park Geun Hye.
Investigations concluded the tragedy was largely man-made - the cumulative result of an illegal redesign of the ship which made it top-heavy, an overloaded cargo bay, inexperienced crew and a questionable relationship between the ship operators and state regulators.