Divers prepare to recover bodies from sunken Russian submarine

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The Independent Online

British, Norwegian and Russian divers arrived yesterday over the wreck of the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine in the Barents Sea, preparing to try to recover the 118 crew who lost their lives.

British, Norwegian and Russian divers arrived yesterday over the wreck of the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine in the Barents Sea, preparing to try to recover the 118 crew who lost their lives.

The divers will operate from the Norwegian mother ship Regalia. But Russian naval officials said the operation may be called off if the divers found that working amid floating debris and cables 350ft down was too dangerous.

The Regalia is anchored in calm water above the submarine, which sank with all hands after two so far unexplained explosions tore out her bows. But meteorologists in the Russian port of Murmansk warned: "The forecast for next week is not comforting and a storm warning cannot be ruled out."

Salvage experts believe the divers, if they enter the submarine, are unlikely to find many of the crew. Foreign intelligence vessels monitored the Russian naval manoeuvres on 12 August, when the Kursk sank during an exercise in which torpedoes or missiles were fired. They say explosions equivalent to four to seven tons of TNT opened much of the submarine to currents that may have swept away many of the bodies.

The divers will need to cut through the double hull of the Kursk or through the wreckage to get inside. Only the aft sections remain intact. Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, the naval commander, said this week that if the inside of the submarine's hull was risky for divers, "I will be forced to give orders to cancel the operations".

Russian naval officials, conscious of criticism of the failed Russian rescue effort in August, are being cautious about what can be achieved. They are also concerned that the diving team might become the victim of some fresh disaster.

Admiral Kuroyedov flew by helicopter yesterday to vessels working on the project to check if the divers - six foreign and 12 Russian, says the agency Interfax - were ready.

The cause of the sinking of the submarine is still unknown. Russian officials admit there was a powerful internal explosion but suggested the cause could have been a collision with a foreign vessel or a Second World War mine.

The most likely explanation for the disaster is that the Kursk was testing a torpedo using a cheaper but more volatile fuel, which exploded. That could have led to a second explosion when all or some of the Kursk's 24 torpedoes blew up minutes later.

President Vladimir Putin was severely criticised in the Russian and foreign media during the rescue attempt for failing to end his holiday and return to Moscow. But the episode shows no sign of having inflicted long-term political damage on the Russian leader.

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