August 5, 2005

Russia begins rescue of stranded mini-sub crew

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russia navy dragged a stranded
mini-submarine closer to safety on Friday, hoping to rescue the
seven crew members trapped 190 meters (600 feet) below the
surface before their air runs out.

The 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 on
Russia's Pacific Coast.

More than 30 hours after the AS-28 mini-submarine snagged
on the Pacific sea floor, Russian ships had to abandon attempts
to cut it free from the net wrapped around the propeller.

A new tactic -- dragging the submarine along with the net
into shallower water -- brought quicker results.

"We have hooked the whole tangle including our submersible
object. In all this time, it has been moved almost a
kilometer," Admiral Viktor Fyodorov, commander of the Pacific
fleet, told NTV television.

"We are continuing our work to get her to a shallower
place... But whether we will manage it, I cannot say."

He hoped to have the boat in a place where divers could
reach it within eight hours, which would be before the arrival
of rescue teams from Britain and the United States that are
flying to the scene.


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 for 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.

"According to the signal we have received from the crew all
is as normal as can be expected on board and the sailors are in
a satisfactory condition and are all alive," Rear Admiral
Vladimir Pepelyaev told Reuters.

Fyodorov said they should have enough air to last until the
"end of the tomorrow."

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

Japan's Defense Agency said four military vessels had been
sent to join the rescue operation, but 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 capable
of descending 925 meters.

A U.S. Navy spokesman said a Super Scorpio, an unmanned
deep diving submarine capable of reaching a depth of 1,515
meters, would be airlifted to the scene from San Diego naval
base in California.

A source close to the Russian admiralty said the Japanese
help would come no earlier than Tuesday while the U.S. and
British rescue operations were expected at 0800 GMT.

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

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.