British robot craft begins battle to save seven from stricken submarine as oxygen supply runs out

International dash to rescue vessel trapped on the floor of the Pacific. Andrew Johnson reports
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The Independent Online

Rescue workers from Russia, the United States and Britain were locked in a battle against time last night to save the seven-man crew of a trapped Russian submarine.

With oxygen running out fast ­ it is unlikely to last much beyond today ­ a British unmanned submersible was cutting through the main cables that are trapping the Russian AS-28 sub on the floor of the Pacific Ocean 625 feet (190 metres) beneath the surface.

Initial reports suggested it was entangled in a fishing net, but last night it seemed the submarine had become trapped by giant underwater antennae, part of Russia's coastal monitoring system.

The hopes of the crew, their anxious relatives ­ and a nation for whom the wounds of the Kursk submarine disaster of five years ago are still raw ­ were resting on four British and US state-of-the-art robotic submarines.

Around 10.30pm (11.00am local time) a British "Super Scorpio" capable of cutting through thick cables started its descent in the Bay of Beryozovaya Bay off the remote Kamchatka Peninsula where the stricken sub lies.

An American team with two more vehicles were on the point of leaving for the expected to leave shortly for the rescue site about 10 miles (15 kilometers) from land.

It had been hoped they could be ready by yesterday afternoon to begin their journey to the stricken craft and possibly cut it free, but were delayed.

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

The trapped crew may have been given an additional hope by the rescue boats on the surface. Earlier yesterday, surface ships appeared to have attached cables to the stricken sub and were attempting to drag it closer to the surface where divers could reach the crews.

"Two ships caught the whole thing in a loop and have started pulling them up," Igor Dygalo, a navy spokesman, said last night. "The vessel will be raised to a depth of 30-50 metres [90-150 feet]."

The British submersible arrived in Russia's far east on an RAF C-17 transport plane which had flown from Brize Norton via Glasgow to pick up the Robotically Operated Vehicle (ROV).

Commander Ian Riches was leading the rescue operation. "This is a life-or-death situation," he said. "The ROV will go into the water and down to the seabed and will try to cut the wire, or whatever it is that's snagging the submarine.

"The ROV has a manipulator which can cut through wire up to four or five inches thick and we think this wire may only be around one inch. We hope the submarine will propel itself back to the surface." Commander Riches said the sailors had very little oxygen left.

"They are rapidly running out of air. We have to make sure we can get there and release that cable so they can get back to the surface.

"These sailors are part of our submarine brotherhood."

An earlier attempt to haul the stricken vessel to shallower waters failed when cables detached after pulling it 60 metres. Officials say the mini-sub is too deep for divers to reach or for the stranded crew to swim out from.

Rescuers made contact with the crew yesterday evening local time and said their condition was "satisfactory" despite temperatures of 5-7C (41-45F), Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Viktor Fyodorov said.

It was not clear if they spoke with the men by radio or made contact through some other means.

The submarine, which had been participating in a combat training exercise, got caught on what is now believed to be an underwater assembly that is anchored with a weight of about 60 tons.

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

All 118 men on board the nuclear missile submarine, 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 Russian daily 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 President Putin has remained silent on the latest accident, although he has met with senior officials. In a sign of growing concern at the Kremlin, Mr Putin sent the Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, to Kamchatka to take charge of the rescue operation.

The new crisis indicated that promises by President Vladimir Putin to improve the navy's equipment apparently have had little effect.

RUSSIAN SUBS: A TRAGIC RECORD

August 2003: K-159

Nine sailors drowned when nuclear submarine K-159 sank in a storm in the Barents Sea.

August 2000: Kursk

All 118 crew of the billion-pound Russian naval submarine died when an on-board explosion, caused by an unstable torpedo propellant banned in the West, sent the vessel to the bottom of the Barents Sea.

October 1986: K-219

Soviet nuclear submarine K-219 suffered explosion and fire while patrolling near Bermuda. Four sailors died.

April 1989: Komsomolets

42 crew died in the Barents Sea after escaping the Komsomolets, a Soviet military submarine carrying nuclear torpedoes which suffered a massive fire while patrolling the coast of Norway.

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