Officials shift salvage efforts to front of sunken submarine

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The Independent Online

Russian naval officials have ordered divers to shift their search for remains from the aft section of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk to its front, judging that the operation was becoming too risky.

Russian naval officials have ordered divers to shift their search for remains from the aft section of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk to its front, judging that the operation was becoming too risky.

Capt. Vladimir Navrotsky, a spokesman for the Russian Northern Fleet, said that divers had stopped their search of the submarine's ninth compartment.

"The divers have done all they could," Navrotsky said. "Further efforts would be too dangerous for the divers."

However, he said there was still hope of recovering remains from the fore of the Kursk - contradicting officials' earlier statements that seamen there had almost certainly been blown to pieces when the Kursk's weapons detonated in a powerful explosion, equal in force to a 3.5-magnitude earthquake.

"We believe there is still a chance of finding bodies in the third compartment," Navrotsky said.

He again denied media reports claiming that the divers would try to recover secret codes and missile equipment from the front section of the ship.

But by moving to the front of the submarine, naval officials may be hoping to gather clues on what caused the August 12 disaster. Russian officials have focused on the theory that the blasts were set off by a collision with another, possibly foreign, ship during exercises in the Barents Sea. But others have said the most likely cause was a torpedo exploding in its tube.

Teams of Russian and Norwegian divers have so far recovered 12 bodies. They focused their work in the stern, after finding a seaman's note indicating that at least 23 sailors had survived for hours after the initial blasts that sank the sub. The survivors had gathered in the ninth and last compartment, where the emergency escape hatch was located, the note said.

In Moscow, Navy spokesman Cpt. Igor Dygalo said Tuesday that the ninth compartment was too confined for the divers to continue their work.

"Minimum safe passages should be at least 70 centimeters wide. At present moment, they are 55 centimeters wide, making further work too dangerous for the divers," Dygalo said.

He said that the divers had covered a hole they cut in the submarine's hull over the eighth compartment with a special steel cover and also shut the exit hatch in the ninth compartment, conserving the wreck.

Throughout the 10-day operation, the divers have been at risk of ripping their pressure suits and air hoses on the machinery.

Meanwhile, the weather at the disaster site started to improve on Tuesday, lifting hopes that the seamen's remains could be flown from the divers' mother-ship Regalia to the mainland for identification and burial. The first four bodies were brought to shore for a memorial ceremony on Sunday, but the others were stranded because bad weather hampered helicopter flights.

Officials said Tuesday that forensic expertise had confirmed the identity of Lt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, in whose pocket the note was found. Kolesnikov's body was flown to his native city of St. Petersburg for burial.

After more than two months underwater, the bodies have been severely damaged, complicating identification, officials said. They will not be released to relatives for burial until forensic experts complete their work.

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