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Associated Press
Lee Joon-seok, third from left, the captain of the ferry Sewol that sank off South Korea, and two crew members prepare to leave a court which issued their arrest warrant in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Yonhap)

15 crew indicted over SKorean ferry disaster

Associated Press
FILE - In this April 19, 2014 file photo, Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry boat Sewol in the water off the southern coast, arrives at the headquarters of a joint investigation team of prosecutors and police in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Yonhap, File)
Associated Press
Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast, arrives at a court which issues his arrest warrant in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Friday, April 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Yonhap)
Associated Press
Lee Joon-seok, center, arrested captain of the sunken ferry Sewol, is brought by police officers to the headquarters of a joint investigation team of prosecutors and police in Mokpo, South Korea, Sunday, April 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Yonhap)
Associated Press
Lee Joon-seok, the captain of a sunken ferry in the water off the southern coast arrives to be investigated at Mokpo Police Station in Mokpo, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Yonhap)

– South Korea’s prosecutors on Thursday indicted 15 crew members over last month’s ferry sinking, four of them on homicide charges, in a disaster has left more than 300 people dead or missing.

Prosecutors said they brought homicide charges against the ship’s captain and three other crew members because they failed to carry out their duties to protect passengers in need, which led to their deaths. If convicted, they could face up to death penalty, according to Supreme Court.

Eleven others were indicted for alleged negligence and abandoning passengers in need when the ship sank on April 16, according to prosecutors. The indictment was filed Thursday in Gwangju District Court and the trial date will be decided in a few days, according to a court official who requested anonymity due to department rules.

The 15 crew members, all involved in the ship’s navigation, were the first group of people rescued when the Sewol was badly listing that day.

Capt. Lee Joon-seok initially told passengers to stay in their cabins and took about half an hour to issue an evacuation order but it’s not known if his message was conveyed to passengers. In a video taken by the coast guard, he was seen escaping the ferry in his underwear to a rescue boat while many passengers were still in the sinking ship.

Lee told reporters after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers’ safety in the cold, swift water.

About one month after the sinking, 281 bodies have been retrieved but 23 others were still listed as missing. Underwater searches for the bodies have been hampered by strong currents and bad weather. Family members of the missing passengers are still camping out at a nearby port waiting for the news of their loved ones.

Most of the victims are students from a single high school near Seoul, who were travelling to the southern tourist island of Jeju for a school trip.

The sinking, one of the deadliest disaster in South Korea’s modern history, has triggered outpouring of national grief with more than 1.8 million people having reportedly paid respects at makeshift mourning stations across the country. The government has been under mounting public criticism for its handling of the disaster. Officials also have repeatedly corrected the number of people aboard the ship and who were rescued.

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Associated Press writer Youkyung Lee contributed to this report.

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