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Trapped Russian mini-sub, crew rescued in Pacific

August 7, 2005

By Oliver Bullough

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Rescuers cut free a Russian
mini-submarine ensnared in deep-sea cables on Sunday, saving
its seven crew with British help, after a three-day ordeal at
the bottom of the Pacific with dwindling oxygen.

“The operation is finished. At 7:17 a.m., the submarine
broke the surface. The crew opened the hatch on their own,”
Rear Admiral Vladimir Pepelyaev said on state television.

He said the seamen were put on a rescue ship to be taken to
hospital in the far eastern Pacific port of
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky for further observation.

“By our information, the doctors have said their condition
is satisfactory. They have not needed any particular
treatment,” he said.

Officers had said they might only have Sunday left to
rescue the men stuck on board the AS-28, which was snarled up
in heavy metal debris, because of their limited air supply.

A British Scorpio, an unmanned undersea rescue vehicle
rushed at Moscow’s request to waters off the far east Kamchatka
peninsula, was briefly forced to return to the surface but got
back to work to clear remaining debris.

The AS-28, itself a rescue vessel, got its propeller
tangled in metal cords from the antenna of an electronic
underwater monitoring station — part of Russia’s coastal
defenses — during military exercises, trapping it 200 meters
(600 feet) below the surface.

The accident, which occurred on Thursday but only came to
light the following day, stirred up memories of a botched
attempt to save a Russian submarine five years ago.

TRAUMA AND CRITICISM

The nuclear-powered Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in August
2000 after two huge underwater explosions and all 118 crew
perished in a drama that traumatized Russia.

President Vladimir Putin was criticized for failing to
break off a holiday on the Black Sea while rescuers battled in
Arctic waters to reach the doomed crew.

This time, Putin has once again stayed silent.

However, in a sign of Kremlin concern, he sent Defense
Minister Sergei Ivanov to Kamchatka to take charge of the
rescue operation, although he had not arrived at the scene
before the AS-28 was rescued.

Conflicting reports of the amount of oxygen left had raised
fears that the crew would not be saved in time — with
officials saying on Friday the seven men had air for 24 hours,
but repeatedly extending the time limit as the days went by.

The structure enmeshing the vessel was itself weighed down
on the ocean floor 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 that the
Russian military was far from keen to allow foreign navies to
come so close to such a strategic area.

“This area is stuffed with secrets,” Interfax news agency
quoted retired Admiral Eduard Baltin, former Black Sea Fleet
commander, as saying. “It is home to strategic nuclear
submarines.” (Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova and Meg
Clothier)




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