South Korea ferry company chief executive detained and facing manslaughter charges over hundreds of deaths from sinking of Sewol

President of Chonghaejin Marine, which operated the Sewol, apologised to families

Police in South Korea have detained the head of the company that operated the Sewol ferry that sank last month, resulting in the loss of more than 300 lives.

Prosecutors say that the ferry may have been overloaded with cargo when it sank on 16 April, leading it to start listing to one side and eventually capsize.

Kim Han-sik, the president of Chonghaejin Marine, faces allegations that he was aware the ferry was over its safe cargo limit but did nothing to stop the trip. Four employees of the company, who handled cargo being stowed on the Sewol, have already been arrested.

Speaking at a detention facility in the port city of Mokpo, Mr Kim said: “I apologise to the victims and their families.”

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said investigations into Mr Kim’s actions would be carried out before it is decided whether he will be formally arrested. Officials said he faced possible charges including manslaughter and breaking maritime law.

All 15 surviving crew members involved in the ferry's navigation have been arrested, accused of negligence and failing to protect passengers.

Investigators said 35 are still listed as missing from the ferry that was carrying 476 people, mostly students from the same high school near Seoul. Almost 270 people have died, including 7 of the 29 crew members, while authorities revised the figure rescued down from 174 to 172.

South Korea's prime minister Chung Hong-won said yesterday that officials must try to complete the search for the missing by Saturday as tidal currents were forecast to be weak until then.

But no progress has been reported since then as divers have struggled with high waves and strong winds, a government spokesman said.

Searches have been hampered by strong currents, bad weather and floating debris inside the ship. A civilian diver fell unconscious while searching and died on Tuesday, the first fatality among divers since the sinking.

sewol-chief.jpgThe lengthy, difficult underwater search for bodies off South Korea's southern coast has deepened the anguish of families of missing people, who have been camping out at a nearby port waiting for the news of their loved ones.

Many South Koreans have been highly critical of the government's handling of the rescue effort, and the regulatory failures that may have allowed the disaster to happen.

There is evidence not only that the ship was overloaded with cargo, but that the agency responsible for ensuring passenger safety had incorrect information about how much the ship could safely carry.