August 5, 2005

Russia strives to rescue stranded mini-sub crew

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russia Navy strove on Saturday to
rescue seven crew members trapped 190 meters (600 feet) below
the surface before 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.

Rescuers sought to drag the AS-28 mini-submarine closer to
shallower waters, but anchors and a large surveillance system
hindered the plan more than 40 hours after the submarine
snagged in deep waters, top officials said.

"We moved it 100 meters toward the coast but the speed is
not sufficient," said Admiral Viktor Fyodorov, commander of the
Pacific fleet, the Interfax news agency reported.

Rescuers will now seek to cut the surveillance equipment
and anchors from the submarine, Fyodorov said.

The crew are in a "satisfactory condition" and are trying
to conserve oxygen by keeping movement to a minimum, Navy
officials told Reuters.

As Russia's Navy raced to save the crew, teams from Britain
and the United States were 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, when news of the accident was released, officers
addressed the public via state television hourly although
varying estimates of the amount of air left for the crew 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.