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Search continues for hundreds missing in South Korea ferry capsize

Rescue teams in South Korea are racing against time to find more than 280 people missing after a ferry sank off the country's southern coast. The vessel was carrying a group of high school students. The cause is unclear.

A distress signal was sent from the ferry at 9:00 a.m. local time (0000 GMT), but the 6,825-ton vessel sank within two hours, after listing sharply and capsizing. It sank 20 kilometers (13 miles) off the southern island of Byungpoong.

The government has sharply revised down the number of rescued people by more than 200 to 174, raising fears the final death toll could be much higher than originally feared. Four people have been confirmed dead so far.

"The remaining 293 people are unaccounted for," said Lee Gyeong-Og, the vice minister for security and public administration, told reporters during a briefing in Seoul.

The government said 95 percent of the ferry, which was carrying 325 high school students on a school trip to Jeju, was submerged. It had sailed out of the western port of Incheon on Tuesday evening.

Television images showed passengers wearing life vests sliding off the side of the ship and climbing into life boats. Dozens of boats, helicopters and divers rushed to the scene to search for survivors. Many of those rescued appeared to have been helped by local fishing boats and other commercial vessels that were the first to the area.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has ordered all available vessels be sent to help in the rescue effort. A team of divers, including South Korean navy SEALS, are searching the submerged ferry.

Vice minister Lee said murky water was hampering the search.

"There is so much mud in the sea water and the visibility is very low," he said.

The cause of the disaster is still unclear.

jr/hc (AFP, dpa, Reuters)