'No sign of life' on board stricken submarine

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The Independent Online

Against a backdrop of growing public anger and frustration in Russia at the failure to rescue the 118 sailors trapped at the bottom of the Barents Sea, Moscow yesterday requested international assistance, aware that it may be a move too late.

Against a backdrop of growing public anger and frustration in Russia at the failure to rescue the 118 sailors trapped at the bottom of the Barents Sea, Moscow yesterday requested international assistance, aware that it may be a move too late.

With all efforts yesterday to try and use mini-submarines to rescue the men having failed as a result of poor weather and strong currents, Russia formally requested help from Britain and Norway. Senior Russian officials are to meet Nato officials in Brussels later today to discuss further help.

Last night the Deputy Prime Minister, Ilya Klebanov, warned that there were no longer any tapping noises coming from the Kursk. He said: "There is no sign of life." With the submarine listing at the hopeless angle of 60 degrees in vicious currents it appeared that Moscow was preparing its people for the worst possible scenario.

The formal request resulted in the deployment of a 27-strong British team equipped with a specialist submarine rescue vessel who flew from Scotland yesterday morning.

But hopes that the British team may pull of some miracle rescue appeared faint when it was revealed last night that it will not arrive above the Kursk until Saturday evening.

The delay in requesting assistance could prove very damaging to President Vladimir Putin, who is currently on holiday at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. It appears senior naval officers were unable to turn to the West without Mr Putin's approval. One official was yesterday quoted as saying "Putin would only give the green light ... if all other avenues were exhausted and the lives of the sailors are in danger".

According to the Russian navy's deputy chief of staff, Mr Putin made the order after taking a telephone call from US President Bill Clinton, which led him "to accept help wherever it comes from".

As a result of the delay, the British team was already locked into a plan which took it first to Norway, where it was to wait on "emergency standby".

That the sailors are in a perilous state seems beyond doubt. With no work from the crippled nuclear submarine since Saturday, when as explosion close to its torpedo tubes sent it plummeting to the seabed, rescuers have only been able to guess the precise conditions on board.

They know that the supplies of compressed air must be dangerously low and levels of carbon dioxide must be at a poisonous state. The sailors are at risk from the cold and the possibility of liver failure as a result of dehydration. There now appears a general acceptance that at the very best there will "some" casualties.

There is also an acceptance that the Russians have been doing their best - albeit without outside assistance -- to try and rescue the crew and officers trapped on the Kursk.

A naval spokesman said there were around 20 vessels at the scene involved in the operation using mini-submarines.

Rescuers have also resorted to using a diving bell to try and reach the men and offer them an escape route. But all efforts have been hampered by the atrocious weather conditions and zero visibility underwater as a result of the silt and sand that have been mixed up by strong currents.

Yesterday the head of the navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, said he remained confident that there would be some survivors. "I am feeling more confidence that the operation to rescue the Kursk's crew will yield a result," he said. "It is necessary to take account of the psychology of submariners - when they know that rescue capsules are hovering above them, they keep silent."

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