• Kyodo

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Japanese divers have recovered weapons and the remains of a man from the seabed during a search of a suspected North Korean spy ship that sank in the East China Sea following a shootout with Japan Coast Guard vessels last December, according to Japan Coast Guard officials.

The mystery ship, a 100-ton vessel Japanese authorities believe was either on a spying mission or being used to deliver a shipment of drugs, sank after an explosion during a chase by Japanese Coast Guard vessels.

Coast Guard officials said they believe the human remains, recovered close to the wreckage, are those of a crew member from the sunken vessel.

The divers also retrieved a gun, a number of bullets, a cartridge clip, a magazine and other items found nearby, the officials said.

“It is a great achievement that we could recover important evidence,” said Tadashi Kurogi, head of the Guard and Rescue Department of the 10th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, which is overseeing the operation, which began Wednesday.

Coast Guard officials say they plan to perform an autopsy on the body and analyze the weapons and other debris recovered from the scene.

Kurogi said the underwater visibility in the area is only 2 meters, but the coast guard plans to continue the search if conditions permit.

The Coast Guard is examining the wreckage, which lies at a depth of 90 meters, to determine whether the vessel can be raised.

The operation, which is expected to continue through Tuesday, is being conducted by a private Japanese salvage company commissioned by the government, using deep-sea divers and a submersible.

The submersible carried two salvage experts and a coast guard official, while Japanese Coast Guard vessels were on hand to provide security. Four Chinese ships were also in the area to monitor the Japanese operation, officials said.

Beijing initially opposed Japanese plans to inspect and salvage the ship, but gave the green light Monday after Tokyo pledged not to release pollution in the area and promised to notify Beijing about the progress and results of the investigation.

The area where the ship sank, about 390 km west-northwest of Amami-Oshima Island, lies within China’s exclusive economic waters.

According to Japanese officials, the mystery vessel carried at least 15 crew members. After the shootout, Japanese authorities recovered the bodies of two sailors who were wearing life vests with Korean characters on them.

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