Seoul Toll Estimate Suddenly Jumps

SEOUL -- The death toll in the collapse of a shopping mall two weeks ago could reach 650, about 200 more than previously announced, officials said Thursday.

The higher estimate immediately led to charges that authorities had been trying to cover up the extent of human losses in one of South Korea's worst peacetime disasters.

Nineteen more bodies were recovered Thursday, raising the confirmed toll to 262. More than 900 people were injured.

The number of missing was given as 197 as of late Wednesday. But early Thursday, Seoul officials suddenly raised the number to 410.

The state KBS-TV network aired concerns that failure to announce the higher estimate earlier could have been an attempt by authorities to minimize the disaster and avoid criticism.

The government of President Kim Young-sam has been under public fire for insufficient measures to prevent a series of major public works accidents in recent months.

"It looks as if the city never had any credible tally and tried to cover up the number of victims," said one angry relative. "Now as their mistakes are revealed they are trying to evade responsibility by inflating the figures."

Fears that the list of missing might not include all those trapped under the rubble of the five-story Sampoong Department Store were first raised Sunday when a 21-year-old man was pulled out alive nearly 10 days after it caved in on more than 1,000 people June 29.

Choi Myung-suk had not been on the list of the missing kept by the city. Instead, he showed up on a longer, separate list kept by the Secho ward, in which the store is located.

The higher number announced by the city Thursday combines the two separate lists.

City officials said the longer list had not been announced because of police concerns that it could contain fraudulent reports by people seeking financial compensation from the city and the store.

Compensation was expected to range from 100 million won ($130,000) to double that amount for families of the victims.