Antarctic bid to save scientists trapped in ice

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A research ship will set sail today on a hazardous 2,500-mile journey to the Antarctic to rescue more than 100 scientists and crew aboard a ship trapped in pack ice.

A research ship will set sail today on a hazardous 2,500-mile journey to the Antarctic to rescue more than 100 scientists and crew aboard a ship trapped in pack ice.

The beleagured ship, the German vessel Magdalena Oldendorff, was returning from a Russian research base on Antarctica's Princess Astrid coast when thick ice blocked its escape route.

South African rescue ship, the Agulhas, must leave now before worsening weather in the Antarctic winter makes their mission impossible.

The ship will take about nine days to sail south from Cape Town to Gough Island in the South Atlantic, 250 miles from the German vessel. It will then rendezvous with an Argentinian naval icebreaker, and the two will then need a further five days to get to the trapped ship.

The plan is to first attempt to forge a break out through the encircling ice. Failing that, the trapped scientists will be plucked to safety by two Oryx military helicopters.

But a South African spokesman for the rescuers warned: "The conditions are terrible. This time of year it's dark for 24 hours, the temperature is minus 50 degrees Celsius, and there are very high winds with lots of ice flying around.

"The pilots will have a hard time feeling their hands and feet in the cold, and a small accident could easily become a big one. I believe that this is an heroic effort."

The Oryx helicopters were being fitted with de-icing and anti-icing equipment.

Because cold thins the air, they cannot fly with heavy loads and will carry only 18 people at a time.

Organisers for the rescue mission said a Russian expert on ice reconnaisance and navigation who would lead efforts to reach and extract the Magdalena Oldendorff.

If all efforts fail organisers, will provision the trapped 18,000-ton ship with fuel and food for a longer stay, and leave a skeleton crew behind.

Organisers said the 79 Russian scientists and 28 crew aboard from Germany, India, the Philippines and Moldova were not in immediate danger but did not have enough supplies to survive the entire Southern Hemisphere winter, which has just begun.

The South Africans say they usually like to get their ships out of Antarctica by April at the latest.

The Russians however are known to take increased risks with the incoming winter.

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