August 5, 2005

Russia races against time to save mini-sub crew

By Guy Faulconbridge

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 possibly less than 24 hours of air left.

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, Russian ships had abandoned trying to cut
the submarine free from a fishing net wrapped around the

Officials hoped a new tactic -- trying to drag the
submarine along with the net into shallower water -- would
bring results.

"We are now doing all that we can to lift it all, as a
whole complex. We are already working on this. We have lowered
down all the tow-ropes," said Admiral Viktor Fyodorov,
commander of the Pacific fleet, on Rossiya television.

"Now our rescue ships are trying to lift and drag it toward
shallower waters."

The United States and Britain were rushing deep-sea rescue
vehicles to the site by air, predicting their would arrive on
Kamchatka by on Saturday.

"There is enough air for 24 hours, but you should not take
this too literally. It depends on the physical condition of the
crew, and that is a conservative estimate," chief naval
spokesman Igor Dygalo told Reuters.

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 Barents Sea that occurred after explosions on
board, and the Kremlin and naval command were sharply
criticized by not revealing full information on the disaster.

On Friday, officers addressed the public via state
television hourly although varying estimates of the amount of
air left for the crew -- one admiral said there was enough air
to last until Monday -- did little to clarify the situation.


Russia, which said it had 10 ships in the rescue effort,
asked Japan as well as the United States 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.

Britain, responding to a request from the Russians, was
sending a Scorpio remote-controlled underwater vehicle.

The British Defense Ministry said the Scorpio, which can
operate to a depth of 925 meters (3,035 feet), would be flown
out from Prestwick Airport near Glasgow in Scotland and was
expected to reach the site of the rescue operation in around 11

A U.S. Navy spokesman in Washington said that a Super
Scorpio, an unmanned deep diving submarine, would be airlifted
to the scene from San Diego naval base in California.

Dygalo has said the 'Super Scorpio', capable of diving to
an ocean depth of 1,515 meters (5,000 feet), could reach
Kamchatka in 13 hours at the earliest.

After the Kursk disaster, Russia's 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 said. "This plan
can be put into action within next five hours."

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