August 6, 2005

Russia poised to stage mini-sub Pacific rescue

By Richard Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian navy, backed by U.S. and
British hi-tech, deep-sea rescue gear, was poised on Sunday to
try to free a trapped mini-submarine from the Pacific depths
and save its seven-man crew before their air supply ran out.

Naval officials made clear they may only have Sunday left
to save the crew of the AS-28, tangled up in heavy metal debris
190 meters (600 feet) down, because of dwindling oxygen on

A British Scorpio, an unmanned undersea rescue vehicle,
arrived off Russia's far east Kamchatka peninsula and was
preparing to plunge down to the stricken vessel.

"The Scorpio's crew is readying it to dive," naval
spokesman Igor Dygalo was quoted as saying by Interfax news

He did not spell exactly what the British vessel would do,
but it was assumed it would try to cut the stricken vessel

The United States has also dispatched rescue vehicles to
the scene at Moscow's request, where Russian naval officials
said they were working round the clock to save the crew.

The accident, which occurred on Thursday but was not made
public until the following day, has revived grim memories of
the botched attempt to save the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk
five years ago.

The Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000 after
explosions on board and the crew of 118 perished in a drama
that traumatized Russia and led to fierce criticism of
President Vladimir Putin.

Putin has remained silent on the latest accident. But in a
sign of growing Kremlin concern, he sent Defense Minister
Sergei Ivanov to Kamchatka to take charge of the rescue

Naval officials were in contact with the crew of the AS-28,
itself a rescue vessel that got into trouble during a military
exercise, at least twice on Saturday night.

Rear Admiral Vladimir Pepelyaev told Russian television the
crew were keeping their spirits up. But he said oxygen was
running out.

"Given the supplies of air, the rescue operation must be
ended by the end of the next 24 hours," he said.


The AS-28's propeller got entangled in metal cords from the
antenna of an electronic underwater monitoring station -- part
of Russia's coastal defenses -- during military exercises.

The structure enmeshing the vessel is itself weighed down
on the bottom by two heavy anchors.

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

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

"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

Admiral Pepelyaev told RIA news agency earlier on Saturday
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.