August 6, 2005

Russia races to free trapped mini-sub

By Oleg Shchedrov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia raced on Saturday to haul up a
mini-submarine stuck 190 meters underwater near its Pacific
coast, before the seven sailors on board run out of air.

"We have today, perhaps tomorrow," deputy chief naval
staff, Rear Admiral Vladimir Pepelyaev told Russian television.

Britain and the United States flew unmanned undersea rescue
vehicles to the far east Kamchatka peninsula to help with the
accident, which has revived grim memories of a botched attempt
to save sinking Russian nuclear submarine Kursk five years ago.

The AS-28 mini-submarine, itself a rescue vessel, has been
stranded since Thursday, when its propeller got tangled up in
wires from the antenna of a military underwater monitoring
device, during military exercises.

The first attempt early on Saturday to drag the mini-sub to
shallow waters failed.

Itar-Tass news agency quoted naval spokesman Igor Dygalo as
saying a new attempt had started to try and pull up the AS-28,
together with antenna, cable and two heavy anchors holding it.

"Two rescue ships caught the whole thing in a loop and have
started pulling them up," Dygalo said. "The vessel will be
raised to a depth of 30-50 meters (90-150 feet)."

It was not clear how long the operation might last. There
have also been conflicting reports about whether the rescuers
want to take the AS-28 to the surface, or evacuate the crew
when the submersible rises to the safe depth of 100 meters.


At Russia's request, a British Scorpio and three U.S. Super
Scorpio underwater rescue vehicles were airlifted to Kamchatka
earlier on Saturday, loaded on ships and sent to join the

Interfax news agency quoted Pacific Fleet commander,
Admiral Viktor Fyodorov, as saying that they would only get
there by 2000 GMT.

The coastal waters off Russia's far east have highly
sensitive installations and there were suggestions the military
was not keen to have foreign navies getting so close to its

"This area is stuffed with secrets," Interfax news agency
quoted retired Admiral Eduard Baltin, former Black Sea Fleet
commander, as saying. "It is home for strategic nuclear
submarines ... and a route of secret communication table."

"They could as well invited the whole of NATO," he added.

And deputy chief naval staff Pepelyaev told RIA news agency
that Russia could try to do without foreign help.

"There is no such need at the moment," he said, referring
to the prospect of sending down U.S. divers in special suits
that allow them to go to great depths.

At home, the AS-28 incident has become a reminder of the
Kursk disaster five years ago and which led to fierce criticism
of President Vladimir Putin.

All 118 men on board the Kursk, which sank in the Barents
Sea, died after a botched rescue.

"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

So far Putin has remained silent on the latest accident.
But in a sign of growing Kremlin concern, Putin on Saturday
dispatched Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to Kamchatka to take
personal charge of the rescue operation.