August 6, 2005

Rescuers start to cut free snarled Russian mini-sub

By Meg Clothier

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian navy, backed by a British
deep-sea rescue machine, struggled on Sunday to free a trapped
mini-submarine from the Pacific depths and save its crew before
their air supply ran out.

Naval officials warned they may only have Sunday left to
rescue the seven men stuck on board the AS-28, which is snarled
up in heavy metal debris 600 feet below the surface, because of
dwindling oxygen.

A British Scorpio, an unmanned undersea rescue vehicle that
rushed at Moscow's request to Russia's far east Kamchatka
peninsula, had dived down and started work cutting the stricken
vessel free, Russia's Pacific Fleet press service said.

"It (the Scorpio) arrived at the AS-28 mini-submarine and
at 0305 Moscow time (1905 EDT) started to cut the main cable
keeping the underwater machine in the deep," Interfax quoted
Alexander Kosolapov, the head of the press service, as saying.

Two hoses and a steel cable need to be cut away in order to
disentangle the mini-sub, it added.

The United States has also dispatched rescue vehicles to
the scene, where Russian naval officials said they would work
round the clock to save the crew.

The accident, which happened on Thursday but did not become
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 provoked fierce criticism of
President Vladimir Putin.

Putin has stayed silent so far this time. But in a sign of
growing Kremlin concern, he sent Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov
to Kamchatka to take charge of the rescue operation.

Naval officials were in contact with the crew of the AS-28,
itself a rescue vessel that got into trouble during a military
exercise and Rear Admiral Vladimir Pepelyaev told Russian
television they 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."


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. A previous attempt 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

Rear Admiral Pepelyaev had 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. (Additional reporting by
Maria Kiselyova)