Putin meets 'Kursk' relatives

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The Independent Online

As media and public anger intensified, President Vladimir Putin flew to Russia's main naval base on the Barents Sea yesterday to talk to the relatives of the 118 sailors who died in the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk.

As media and public anger intensified, President Vladimir Putin flew to Russia's main naval base on the Barents Sea yesterday to talk to the relatives of the 118 sailors who died in the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk.

Mr Putin has declared today a day of national mourning, with flags across Russia to fly at half-mast, and called on radio and television stations to drop entertainment programmes in honour of the dead.

His government is desperately trying to fend off criticism that it failed to rescue any sailors because it was slow and incompetent. "The reputation of the Russian government is lying at the bottom of the Barents Sea," said one Russian newspaper yesterday.

Some 500 relatives of the men who went down with the Kursk went on a visit yesterday to the naval base of Vedyayevo from where the submarine sailed on its fatal mission.

A distraught Admiral Vycheslav Popov, commander of Russia's Northern Fleet, said earlier: "Forgive me for not saving your sailors."

In the face of furious press attacks that the government failed to call in Norwegian and British deep-sea divers early enough, Ilya Klebanov, the Deputy Prime Minister, said they would not, in any case, have arrived in time to save anyone on the submarine.

"Yes, we could not send our deep-sea divers; yes, the Norwegians managed to open the hatch and we didn't," he said, but asserted that by the afternoon of 14 August it was clear that all the crew was dead.

In fact, going by what the government said at the time, it had little knowledge of what was happening inside the Kursk.

As the British and Norwegian divers head for home, Norway is considering a request from Russia for assistance in recovering the bodies from inside the submarine. The Norwegians have already said this would be a difficult and dangerous task, possibly requiring divers to cut their way in, and would, in any case, take weeks to accomplish.

An alternative way of retrieving the dead would be to wait until the ship is salvaged, but Admiral Eduard Baltin, a former commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, said yesterday that this could not be done until next autumn. "Even if the lifting work begins in May, it will take a minimum of three or four months to raise the submarine," he said.

Work on salvaging the 14,000-ton submarine cannot begin earlier, as the Arctic winter will soon begin to close in. Tests by the rescue team at the weekend showed the two nuclear reactors on board the Kursk are, for the moment, not raising the level of radioactivity in the water.

Igor Sorofontov, a nuclear specialist for Greenpeace in Moscow, said that a danger was that "the accident happened so quickly that the crew did not have the time to close down the reactors properly". He believes that if the submarine is raised from the sea-bed there is a danger that it might break up, increasing the threat of radiation leaks. He said more information was needed about the state of the wreck.

In the case of the Russian nuclear submarine Komsomolets, which sank off Norway in 1989, the Russian navy sealed the wreck and left the single nuclear reactor at the bottom of the sea. Mr Sorofontov said that "the situation with the Komsomolets is not so bad because it is in 1,500 metres of water while the Kursk is only 100 metres down".

The best way to salvage the Kursk would be lower slings from two large barges and winch it to the surface, say experts. Admiral Baltin said getting a sling under the Kursk required digging three tunnels beneath the vessel which has sunk into the soft mud on the ocean floor. Given the strong underwater currents, these tunnels would have to be kept open using high-pressure equipment.

There is no sign of criticism of Mr Putin and his government easing in the Moscow media, including publications that supported him in the presidential election. Attacks are shifting, however, from the immediate circumstances of the rescue to questions about the wisdom of the Kremlin sending the Northern Fleet to sea with ageing equipment to fly the Russian flag.

"Those who carried out dive after dive, day and night in the icy waters with the equipment they had, they did all they could," said the daily Izvestia. "Those who pretended [Russia] was a superpower will not be excused."