World

Cruise ship captain denies wrongdoing in Hungary boat tragedy

The captain of a passenger cruiser that collided on the Danube River with a smaller boat, which sank with South Korean tourists on board, denies having broken any rules or committing a criminal offence, his lawyer said in a statement.

Officials have slim hopes for 21 missing but search area includes Serbian side of the Danube River

Women pray to mourn the victims of the ship accident at an impromptu memorial in Budapest. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

The captain of a passenger cruiser that collided with a boat that capsized killing South Korean tourists on board denies having broken any rules or committing a criminal offence, his lawyer said in a statement cited by state news agency MTI on Friday.

Hungarian police said late on Thursday they had taken into custody the captain of the 135-metre cruise ship, which hit and sank the smaller pleasure boat. It was so far unclear what caused the accident.

In the statement, the lawyer said treating the 64-year-old Ukrainian captain as a suspect was "premature, at the moment not more than a theory" as experts' opinions were not yet available.

The double-decker Mermaid was cruising on the Danube river in Budapest during a rainstorm on Wednesday evening when the accident occurred, and it sank with 33 South Korean tourists and tour guides and two Hungarian crew aboard.

Seven South Koreans were rescued, seven died, and 19 South Koreans were among the 21 people still missing.

A rescue team is seen Friday in Budapest as the search for bodies or survivors on the Danube continued in less-than-ideal circumstances. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Officials had little hope they would be found alive more than 36 hours after the accident.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said earlier Friday he had asked for a thorough investigation into the accident.

Rescue teams have taken up positions on the surface above the sunken tourist boat and divers have attempted to approach the wreckage, but the flooding river meant conditions were poor and the work could take a long time, the government said.

"One is shaken by this ... an accident happened where passengers had almost no chance for survival," Orban told state radio, offering condolences to relatives of the victims.

"I have asked the authorities to carry out a strict and thorough investigation," he said.

'Conditions are completely against us'

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha arrived in Budapest on Friday to get first-hand information on the rescue efforts and help the process. She thanked her Hungarian counterpart for the intense search and rescue operations.

"I hope this level of effort can be sustained," she told a news conference. "We strive to ensure no corpses are lost from the wreckage or the riverbed, and expanded the search parameters to that end."

The search area extended to Serbia, downstream from Hungary, because the river could have carried bodies that far by now, Hungarian Foreign Minster Peter Szijjarto said.

"Conditions are completely against us," he said. "It is impossible to get close to the wreckage. Visibility is zero, the Danube flows at 15 km/h. The wreckage is six metres underwater."

A crane ship was docked near the wreck in preparation for recovery operations.

"The task is almost impossible," an industrial diver helping the recovery team told Reuters. "The water is high, with strong currents and reduced visibility. Right now the team is trying to find a way to submerge again."

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