|SKorean investigators raid church in ferry accident probe
South Korean investigators on Wednesday raided a sprawling religious compound believed to be the hideout of a fugitive billionaire in a widening probe into last month's ferry disaster that left hundreds dead.
TV footage showed four vans and a bus, packed with investigators, entering Geumsuwon, a 50-acre church and farming complex in Anseong, about 80 kilometres south of Seoul, AFP reports.
Investigators want to detain Yoo Byung-Eun, reclusive patriarch of the family that owns ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co. for questioning over his role in the company, as well as suspected tax evasion and embezzlement.
The raid began shortly before noon as more than 1,000 riot police, backed by 20 firetrucks and ambulances readied for action outside the compound.
But as of 5:00 pm, there was no report on Yoo's detention, sparking speculation that he already had slipped out of the compound, cable news network YTN 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 has contributed to the ferry's sinking, including overloading the ship and remodeling 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 Wednesday through negotiations with prosecutors to avoid a volatile 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, 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 checkered 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.