August 5, 2005

Fears grow for air supply to Russia mini-sub crew

By Oleg Shchedrov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian military raced against time
on Friday to rescue seven sailors trapped on a stranded
mini-submarine 190 meters (623 feet) down in Russia's Pacific
waters with enough air to last less than 24 hours.

The AS-28 mini-submarine, itself a rescue vessel, ran into
trouble on Thursday when its propeller got entangled in fishing
nets during a military exercise off the Kamchatka peninsula.

More than 30 hours after the mini-submarine snagged on the
Pacific sea floor, two Russian ships were sweeping the sea bed
in an effort to cut through a cable from a fishing net that had
ensnared the propeller.

"The sailors have enough air to keep them running for
around 22 hours," chief naval spokesman Alexander Dygalo was
quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency. "I hope there will
be enough time for the rescue operation to succeed."

Though much smaller in scale, the accident had
uncomfortable echoes of the disaster involving the Kursk
nuclear submarine almost exactly five years ago.

All 118 seamen on the Kursk died in the accident in August
2000 in the Arctic Barents Sea that occurred after explosions
on board.

Earlier, Dygalo had said there was a five-day supply of air
and an adequate amount of food and water on board while, in a
conflicting report, the Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Viktor
Dmitriyev, said there was only enough air for two days.


Russia, which said it had 10 ships engaged in the rescue
effort, asked the United States, Japan and Britain for help.

A spokesman for Japan's Defense Agency said four military
vessels had been sent to join the rescue operation. But he said
it would take three to four days for them to reach the site of
the accident.

Dygalo said in televised comments that Britain would
airlift emergency equipment, but its plane was unlikely to
reach the site before Saturday.
A U.S. navy plane had been sent to San Diego naval base to pick
up a Scorpio, an unmanned underwater rescue vehicle, and
deliver it to the site of the rescue operation, he said. He
added later that it would take at least 13 hours for the
Scorpio to be delivered to the site.

After the Kursk disaster, Russian navy command faced strong
public criticism for being too slow to appeal for foreign help.

"Pending the arrival of reinforcements, a plan is being
drafted relying on our own resources," Dygalo told NTV
television. "This plan can be put into action within next five

Dygalo said the crew of the submarine was safe and was told
to switch to minimal energy consumption pending the release.

At 190 meters (623 feet), the AS-28, a 13-meter-long (43
feet) vessel capable of diving to depths of 1,000 meters (3,281
feet), was too far down to allow the crew to evacuate.

"The operation will continue non-stop until a result is
reached," Dygalo said.