S.Korea police raid commune tied to fugitive ferry firm boss

ANSEONG, South Korea, June 11 Tue Jun 10, 2014 10:47pm EDT

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ANSEONG, South Korea, June 11 (Reuters) - South Korean police raided a religious commune on Wednesday seeking the arrest of a businessman linked to a ferry that sank and killed more than 300 people as pressure mounted on the authorities for failing to catch him for more than three weeks.

Yoo Byung-un is wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion stemming from a web of business holdings centered around I-One-I, an investment vehicle owned by his sons that ran the shipping company Chonghaejin Marine.

The raid was launched a day after President Park Geun-hye, whose government was sharply criticised over its handling of the April ferry disaster, said "it made no sense" that such a long and extensive search operation had failed to catch Yoo.

Yoo and his sons, one of whom is based in the United States, have eluded a police manhunt for nearly a month, spurring speculation that they may be trying to pay a ship broker to take them to a country where Seoul authorities cannot reach them.

Authorities last month increased tenfold the reward for information leading to his arrest to the equivalent of half a million dollars.

The raid also followed the opening on Tuesday of the trial of 15 surviving crew members in a courtroom packed with angry parents of some of the many students who died aboard the ferry. Four officers face homicide charges after they were seen escaping the sharply listing vessel.

Sect followers allowed police in riot gear to enter the compound, two hours south of Seoul, after a brief standoff, with believers singing hymns and accusing the government of religious persecution. Police helicopters circles overhead.

VAST COMPOUND

Officers, some with their riot gear removed, moved from building to building at the site, believed to cover an area equivalent to a dozen soccer pitches. Sect members were in pursuit, some singing hymns, others chanting "Let's fight with the prosecutors and police!"

More than 6,000 officials took part, though it remained unclear whether authorities had acted on a tip that Yoo was inside. Police and prosecutors had searched the same compound three weeks ago.

A spokesman for the group said the government should focus its attention on why the ferry Sewol capsized.

Believed to be in his 70s, Yoo is a co-founder of the Evangelical Baptist Church that runs the Anseong compound. Authorities have frozen assets of the Yoo family, but news reports said there may be more still to be identified.

Sect members grow organic produce, run a fish farm and hold religious services. Yoo is believed to have kept a photography studio inside.

The company that operated the ferry did not answer phone calls on Wednesday, while two other firms related to Yoo had no comment on questions regarding his whereabouts.

The Sewol ferry, overloaded with cargo and with insufficient water in its ballast tanks to keep steady, capsized on April 16 during a routine journey from the mainland port of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju.

Most of the victims were children and their teachers on a field trip from a high school on the outskirts of Seoul. Shouts of "murderer!" resounded as the captain entered the court room. (Additional reporting by Sohee Kim; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe and Ron Popeski)

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