SEOUL : Angry parents of victims of South Korea’s ferry disaster assaulted a top official on Thursday, accusing him of lying about efforts to retrieve bodies still trapped in the submerged ship.

About 20 relatives of the victims attacked Choi Sang-Hwan, deputy head of the Korea Coastguard, after storming his temporary office at Jindo port, an AFP journalist on the scene said.

They forced their way through some 10 officers blocking the entrance and pounced on Choi as he sat behind a desk, punching him in the face and body. They then grabbed him by the neck and pulled him out of the office.

Ripping his shirt, they took him to a nearby tent - calling for his superior Kim Suk-Kyun, the coastguard chief, to meet them there. The parents held Choi for a while, with some mothers slapping him continuously, until Kim arrived.

Parents then forced the coastguard chiefs to tell their officers by radio to mobilise more divers and speed up efforts to recover bodies.

There is widespread anger among families over the slowness of initial rescue efforts after the ferry sank on April 16 with 476 people on board, most of them high school students.

It took divers working in difficult and dangerous conditions more than two days to get into the sunken ferry and two more days to retrieve the first bodies.

The confirmed death toll on Thursday stood at 171, but 131 were still missing and believed inside the ship.

Violence broke out Thursday after the relatives went out by boat to inspect operations at the site where the 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized.

“You guys said hundreds of divers were working there, but we only saw a few there today,” a mother screamed at Choi.

The parents demanded that closed-circuit TVs be set up for them to watch rescue efforts live.