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FILE PHOTO: Maritime police search for missing passengers in front of the South Korean ferry "Sewol" which sank at the sea off Jindo April 16, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean court on Thursday acknowledged for the first time the government's liability for the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed 304 people, mainly school children, and ordered it to compensate victims' families.

A botched rescue and the toll of children in one of Asia's most technically advanced economies shocked and angered South Koreans, and the administration of former President Park Geun-hye was the focus of much of the ire.

The ferry was structurally unsound, overloaded and travelling too fast on a turn when it capsized off the southwest coast on April 16, 2014, investigators have said, casting the nation into deep grief for months.

The Seoul Central District Court ordered that every family receive 200 million won (£135,233.64) for each victim, and additional compensation ranging from 5 million (£3,380.84) to 80 million won (£54,093.46) for each family member.

"The victims died while waiting for rescue within the ship, without knowing about the detailed situation," Judge Lee Sang-hyun said in a court document.

"But after more than four years, the dispute is still going on over who is responsible for the sinking and compensation."

It was not immediately clear if the government and the ferry operator would appeal against the decision.

A group of 354 members of the bereaved families of 118 students had filed a lawsuit in 2015 against the government and the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine, after rejecting a compensation deal that closed off the option of legal action.

Chonghaejin Marine overloaded the Sewol and its crew abandoned the stricken ferry after telling passengers to remain in their cabins, the court document said.

The Coast Guard also failed to maintain control of the ship and rescue the passengers, it added.

More than two-thirds of the 476 passengers on board the Sewol were students on a school trip, many of whom died trapped in the vessel following the crew's directive.

Thursday's verdict was "only the beginning" of the families' fight for the truth, said Jeon Myung-sun, who leads an association of victims' families.

"We're not satisfied," Jeon told Reuters. "The court did not accept our argument that the presidential office violated the law, as the control tower for national disasters. We will raise it again in an appeal."

Yoo Kyung-keun, another member of the group, struggled to hold back tears in contrasting the ferry victims' treatment with that of a young Thai soccer team and their coach rescued last week from a cave where they had been trapped for days.

"It was the first time when I envied the Thai people and I will continue to envy them," Yoo told reporters outside the court after the ruling, saying he wished he were a Thai national. "I was so glad everyone was alive and safe."

Park, who is serving a 24-year jail term on corruption charges, denied accusations that she failed to respond promptly and properly to the debacle.

But last March, a prosecution investigation showed she stayed in her bedroom after the ferry capsized, and met Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend now also in prison on charges of having colluded with her to receive millions of dollars from major South Korean conglomerates.

The ferry captain was found guilty of homicide in 2015 and jailed for life. More than a dozen other crew received shorter terms.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Michael Perry)

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