• Kyodo

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Divers have found additional bodies near a suspected North Korean spy ship that sank in the East China Sea following a shootout with Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels last December, coast guard officials said Saturday.

Divers recovered two weapons and what appears to be a bullet from the seabed during a search of the ship Saturday, but did not recover the bodies, they said.

The coast guard began the search operation Wednesday and recovered the body of a man found near the wreckage Friday.

According to a media report Sunday, the body was tied to the stern with a rope, and four other bodies were found fixed to the deck with what appears to be rope.

The crew might have tied themselves to the vessel to ensure their bodies would not be easily recovered, making identification difficult, according to the report.

Japan believes the unidentified ship was either on a spy mission or was used for drug trafficking. It sank after an onboard explosion occurred while Japanese patrol vessels were in pursuit, the coast guard said.

The coast guard officials said Saturday they believe the weapons were used by the crew members of the unidentified ship, but would not comment on details.

The coast guard is investigating the wreckage, which lies at a depth of 90 meters, to determine whether the vessel can be raised.

The search operation, which is expected to continue through Tuesday, is being conducted by divers and submersible equipment. A crane attached to an above-sea vessel was used to raise the recovered items.

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

Since late April, four Chinese ships have been stationed in the area to monitor the Japanese probe, but the number was reduced to three Friday night, according to the Japan Coast Guard.

China has been opposed to Japan’s plan to salvage the ship. But Beijing recently gave the green light for Japan to probe the sunken ship after Tokyo pledged not to pollute the area and promised to notify Beijing about the progress and results of the probe, government sources said.

According to Japanese officials, the mystery vessel had at least 15 crew members. After the shootout, the Japan Coast Guard recovered the bodies of two sailors who were wearing life-jackets that bore Korean writing.

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