Navy negligence is blamed for loss of Russian submarine

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The Independent Online

The Russian government accused the country's navy of negligence yesterday because a nuclear submarine that sank while being towed through a violent storm in the Barents Sea at the weekend went down with the hatch of its conning tower open.

Nine crew members on board the K-159 lost their lives in the accident on Saturday. One naval officer was rescued alive and two dead comrades have been recovered.

The derelict 40-year-old submarine was found on the seabed yesterday with its hatch wide open. The government announced it was halting the towing of decommissioned nuclear submarines to scrapyards. The commander of the region's submarine force has already been suspended.

Inspecting the scene yesterday, Sergei Ivanov, Russia's Defence Minister, criticised navy chiefs for a lax attitude to safety.

"Once again, we've seen the recurrence of an old Russian habit of relying on mere chance and hoping that everything will work out fine anyway," he said.

Floating hulls attached to the submarine were ripped off during the fierce storm and navy sources were quoted as suggesting they had not been attached properly. A military prosecutor has opened an inquiry after Vladimir Putin, the Russian President promised a thorough investigation.

Mr Ivanov, who visited the surviving submariner, Lt Max-im Tsibulsky, in hospital, told him the crew was not to blame. "There are no complaints against you ... you were only a witness," Mr Ivanov said.

The sinking carried echoes of the Kursk disaster in August 2000 in which all 118 crew members of a nuclear submarine died when it sank in the Barents Sea after an explosion.

The Russian government drew intense criticism for the veil of secrecy it tried to bring down on the country's worst peacetime naval disaster, and its refusal of offers of international help.

This time, the government was quick to provide information, although the exact circumstances of the incident remain unclear. But environmentalists said that the danger of radioactive contamination was much higher than official statements suggested. They warn that water could seep into the reactors.

Mr Ivanov said radiation levels in the area where the November class K-159 submarine went down were normal. "No changes have been registered in radiation levels," he said. "Therefore, there must be no reason for concern at this moment," he said. The vessel was located at a depth of 780 feet (235 metres).

The submarine was powered by two nuclear reactors but they were shut down in 1989 when it was decommissioned. The authorities said there were no weapons on board.

The navy also confirmed that the K-159 would be raised to the surface.