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NORTH KOREANS RELEASE CREW OF SOUTH RELIEF SHIP

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North Korea, removing the latest hurdle in improving ties with the rival South, on Sunday freed a South Korean relief ship and crew it had detained on spying charges.

The Samsun Venus and its 21-member crew were expected to reach the South on Monday, according to the Unification Board, the South Korean government agency in charge of relations with the North.The South had threatened to kill a historic food aid deal unless the North freed the ship, detained in the east coast port of Chongjin while unloading rice Aug. 2. The North accused one of the sailors aboard of spying by photographing the port and demanded an apology.

The North's sudden announcement came while representatives of both Koreas negotiated in Beijing on the release of the ship.

"Although the situation is very serious and severe, we decided to approach the case, an offspring of the hostile policy toward the North, with compatriotism and magnanimity," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.

"So our side decided to deal with the criminal act with leniency and return all the crewmen and the ship," it said.

Vice Unification Minister Song Young-dae said Seoul submitted a written statement of regret Saturday. It admitted that chief mate Lee Yang-chon broke North Korean law by taking photos of the Chongjin.

The accusations undermined the arrangement under which South Korea is supplying free rice to the North. In the two Koreas' first official contact in more than a year, North Korea agreed in June to accept 150,000 tons of rice from its capitalist rival.

South Korea suspended further shipments to protest the ship's seizure. Only half of the 150,000 tons has been sent.

Under the agreement reached Saturday, the South agreed to resume shipments beginning Sunday afternoon.