August 6, 2005

U.S. and Britain send help to save Russia mini-sub

By Oleg Shchedrov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian navy on Saturday appeared to
be pinning its hopes on U.S. and British help to save seven
sailors trapped in a mini-submarine in the Pacific after a
failed attempt to pull it to shallow waters.

The United States and Britain both had special underwater
vehicles on their way to the site of the accident, off
Kamchatka peninsula in Russia's far east. However, time was
running out for the crew, 190 meters (600 feet) down on the
ocean floor, who had only limited air supplies left.

Conflicting official accounts of the incident involving the
AS-28 mini-submarine have drawn uncomfortable comparisons with
the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster five years ago.

All 118 men on board on board the Kursk, which sank in the
Barents Sea in August 2000, died after a botched rescue, over
which President Vladimir Putin was fiercely criticizes at home
for failing to call for international help sooner.

"We must complete the operation in 24 hours because the
supply of air on board is not without limit," Interfax news
agency quoted the deputy chief of navy staff, Vladimir
Pepelyaev, as saying.

"It is believed that there is still enough air for slightly
more than 24 hours," Pepelyaev added.

Initial offical reports said the AS-28, itself a rescue
vessel, ran into trouble when its propeller became entangled in
fishing nets during a military exercise. They said it had five
days' supply of air -- more than enough for any rescue mission.

However, about 1000 GMT on Friday, naval spokesman Igor
Dygalo said the trapped vessel had only 24 hours' worth of air
left. There was no official explanation why estimates of air
remaining still stood at 24 hours on Saturday morning.

Later, Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Viktor Fyodorov said
the AS-28 had been ensnared by a large antenna, part of an
underwater electronic station, rather than a fishing net. Late
on Friday, rescuers tried to drag the stricken vessel closer to
shallow waters allowing the crew to escape, but the operation
was called off.

"At the moment the operation has been halted," Interfax
quoted Pepelyaev as saing.

Officials said the crew was in "satisfactory condition" and
they were trying to conserve oxygen by keeping their movements
to a minimum.


Officials said the navy was not ceasing rescue operations
itself, but it was increasingly pinning its hopes on British
and U.S. rescuers, rushed to the scene at Russia's request.

A British Scorpio underwater rescue vessel -- a
remote-controlled vehicle capable of descending 925 meters
(3,035 feet) -- was airlifted at about 0600 GMT to Kamchatka,
RIA news agency reported. It will take up to six hours for it
to reach the scene.

Interfax news agency later reported from Petropavlovsk
-Kamachatsky that a U.S. transporter with an unmanned
deep-diving Super Scorpio submersible had also landed.

Interfax said two more U.S. planes with rescue equipment
were expected at about 1100 GMT.

Japan has sent four military vessels, but they would arrive
only in three or four days' time.

The Russian press, enjoying some independence from Kremlin
control, drew comparisons between the Kursk rescue efforts and
the Kamchatka operation.

"Very much like it was five years ago, the naval command
was slow in reporting the incident and then insisted for a long
time that the sailors had enough air and food, that there was
good communications with them," the newspaper Kommersant wrote.

"Very much as with the Kursk, direct work to save the
submersible started more than a day after the incident
occurred," it added. "In both events, the navy proved it not
prepared for the operation because of lack of experts and
faulty equipment."