Thousands of South Korean police raided a church compound today searching for the fugitive billionaire owner of a ferry that sank in April that left more than 300 people dead or missing.
About 6,000 police officers in riot gear with helmets and plastic shields forced their way into the compound headquarters of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea in Anseong City, 50 miles south of Seoul, but failed to find Yoo Byung-eun.
Yoo, 73, is the head of the church and the owner of the sunken ferry Sewol. Police have offered a $500,000 reward for his capture.
Investigation is underway as to whether the accident was caused by lack of safety standards on the ferry and regulatory violations. The tragedy traumatized the country since most of the victims were high school students on an outing and many of the ferry's crew members, including the captain, escaped the sinking ship leaving the passengers trapped below. The crew was in court Tuesday to face criminal charges.
Police arrested four church members today suspected of assisting Yoo to elude the manhunt and two other church members for allegedly obstructing the raid. Hundreds of devoted church members have been staging a sit-in at the gate of the Anseong compound for weeks singing hymns and chanting “stop the religious oppressions” beneath banners that said “We will protect Yoo Byung-eun even if 100,000 church members are arrested.”
The sprawling church compound includes ranches, fields, a fish farm and an auditorium that can house up to 5,000 people, according to media reports.
In addition to the reward for Yoo, the government has offered a $100,000 bounty for Yoo's oldest son. One of his daughters was arrested in France last month.
Yoo's church has a controversial reputation in South Korea. In 1987 32 people, who critics suspect were church members, were found dead in the attic of a factory near Seoul in what authorities said was a collective murder-suicide pact. The church has denied involvement.
Yoo was investigated over the deaths after a probe into the dead people's financial transactions showed some of their money was funneled to him. He was cleared of suspicions that he was behind the suicides because of a lack of evidence, but was convicted on a separate fraud charge.
The church is believed to have about 10,000 members.
The Associated Press and ABC News' Josephine Jung and Clara Pak contributed to this report