The head of the operator of the South Korean ferry that sank in April with the loss of nearly 300 lives has gone on trial on charges of criminal negligence.

Chonghaejin Marine Company Chief Executive Kim Han-Sik, which owned the 6,825-tonne Sewol ferry, appeared in court in the southern city of Gwangju with four other company officials.

All five face charges relating to allegations that the ferry, which capsized and sank on 16 April, was regularly and dangerously overloaded with cargo in an effort to maximise route profits.

Yonhap news agency quoted Mr Kim's lawyer as saying his client, as chief executive, felt "deeply responsible" but challenged the idea that he was personally to blame for the tragedy and the huge loss of life.

And a lawyer for another Chonghaejin official said he would dispute the prosecution's claim that overloading was a direct cause of the disaster.

A massive manhunt is under way across South Korea for Yoo Byung-Eun, the 72-year-old patriarch of the family that owns Chonghaejin Marine Co through a complex web of holding companies.

He faces allegations of tax evasion, embezzlement and professional negligence.

Mr Yoo and his eldest son, who both have substantial rewards on their heads, have evaded capture for weeks despite a nationwide search involving thousands of police as well as military personnel.

Today's trial opened as it emerged that the principal of the South Korean high school that lost more than 240 students in the disaster has been suspended.

Choo Kyo-Young "was removed from his post in connection with the ferry disaster", a local education official said.

He declined to elaborate on the precise reasons behind the disciplinary action, which involves a three-month suspension after which the individual is either reinstated or reassigned.

The school's vice-principal, who was rescued from the ferry, killed himself three days later, consumed by guilt that so many students in his charge had died.