U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday expressed condolences to the families of the victims of the South Korean ferry sinking and said the U.S. military will provide the country with any help it needs to perform rescue operations.
Rescuers are battling strong waves and murky waters as they search for hundreds of people, many of them teenagers, who are still missing after the boat capsized about 12 miles (20 km) off the country's southwestern coast. The vessel was bound for the holiday island of Jeju with passengers and crew of 475.
The death toll is 14 people, but 282 passengers remain unaccounted for. Among the ship's passengers were 340 children and teachers from the Danwon High School in Ansan, a suburb of the capital, Seoul.
"South Korea is one of our closest allies, and American Navy personnel and U.S. Marines are already on the scene assisting with the search and rescue efforts," Obama said. "I've directed our military to provide any and all assistance requested by our Korean partners in the days ahead."
Obama is due to visit Korea next week during an eight-day, four-country tour of Asia that begins April 23.
"As I will underscore on my visit to Seoul next week, America's commitment to our ally South Korea is unwavering - in good times and in bad," he said.
(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal, editing by G Crosse)