August 5, 2005

Russia strives to save stranded mini-sub

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Navy strove on Saturday to
rescue 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 and an antenna got hooked during a military exercise off
the Kamchatka peninsula on Russia's Pacific Coast, the Navy

Rescuers tried to drag the AS-28 mini-submarine closer to
shallow waters, but anchors and a large antenna hindered the
plan more than 48 hours after the submarine snagged in deep
waters, Navy 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 try to cut the antenna 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 airlifting submersibles and
specialists to the scene.

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

President Vladimir Putin faced criticism for his slow
reaction to the Kursk's sinking, which illustrated the
post-Soviet decline of Russia's submarine fleet and the failure
of top admirals to cope with a crisis.


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

The cause of the accident was also uncertain. Initially the
Navy said the submarine got caught up in fishing nets but later
officials told local news agencies that the submarine had also
snagged an antenna of some kind.

"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.

Pepelyaev said the crew have at least 24 hours of air left.

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.

The U.S. Navy dispatched specialists and two unmanned
submarines to the Russian Far East to join the operation. Two
remote-controlled, deep-diving "Super Scorpio" submersibles
left San Diego for Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a
spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet said. Another will

A third Super Scorpio will join the rescue effort along
with civilian divers with two special suits to allow dives to
extreme depths, he said.

A source close to the Russian admiralty said the Japanese
help would arrive 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.

(Additional reporting by Charles Aldinger in Washington)