Remorseful Putin calls for patience over 'Kursk'

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin said last night that he felt guilt and responsibility for the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine but had rejected the resignation of senior military officers until after an investigation into the disaster.

President Vladimir Putin said last night that he felt guilt and responsibility for the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine but had rejected the resignation of senior military officers until after an investigation into the disaster.

"I have a feeling of responsibility and guilt for the tragedy," Mr Putin said in a television interview, seeking to defuse criticism of his slow reaction to the death of 118 Russian sailors.

Mr Putin also attacked financial oligarchs, saying that, even though they had contributed money to the families of the Kursk's crew, he would have preferred them to have "sold their villas in France and Spain". He claimed that those who now spoke for the sailors "turned out to be those people who in their time prompted the breakdown of the army, the navy and the state".

Speaking of his meeting overnight with the relatives of the sailors, Mr Putin said: "Words are not enough, they are difficult to find. I want to howl."

The president revealed that he had rejected the resignations of the Marshal Igor Sergeyev, the Defence Minister; Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, the commander of the Northern Fleet; and Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, the naval commander. Mr Putin said that he would not sack anybody or put anybody in jail until their guilt was proved.

Earlier the families of many of the Kursk's crew refused to take part in official mourning ceremonies, saying they still hoped their husbands or sons were still alive.

"Until the bodies of our husbands are retrieved, until we see them with our own eyes, we will not mourn," said Oksana Dudko, whose husband Sergei was the deputy commander of the submarine.

Many of the 500 relatives of the 118 crew of the Kursk, who have gathered at the naval village of Vidyayevo, north of Murmansk, are upset at the speed with which national mourning has been declared.

"We will not even begin to think of ourselves as widows until they show us the bodies," Irina Belozorova, an officer's wife, told reporters. "We have every reason to believe our menfolk are still alive, because not all the submarine's compartments have been searched."

President Vladimir Putin cut short his two-day visit to the scene of the disaster after meeting relatives for a three-hour meeting. They asked him to postpone a plan to lay a wreath on the sea above where the submarine sank until the bodies were recovered.

"When will we get them back, alive or dead? Answer as the president," shouted one woman at the meeting. Russian TV yesterday said that relatives were divided on what to do and some would lay a wreath today.

A church service in Vidyayevo was cancelled. Mr Putin promised an average of 200,000 roubles (about £5,000) for the family of each of the crew.

For all the hopes of relatives, British and Norwegian divers, who penetrated the wreck earlier in the week, said there was no hope that anybody could have survived. Most would have died instantly on 12 August when an explosion - probably of a torpedo - tore apart the front half of the submarine.

Any operation to raise the Kursk would take months of planning and could not take place until next summer as winter closes in on the Barents Sea. Julian Thomson, a spokesman for Stolt Offshore, the company whose divers opened the wreck, said: "In practical terms, I'd say that a lifting would be in summer next year at the earliest, if we can find a safe way of doing it."

He added that it might be easier to raise the wreck with the bodies inside than try to remove them from the Kursk.

In the rest of Russia, flags flew at half mast and some TV and radio stations dropped entertainment shows, although others continued to show soap operas. An internet joke website showed only a blank screen.

Despite the hopes of the relatives, other Russians accept that everybody on the Kursk has perished.

* Mr Putin's popularity has not suffered significantly because of the Kursk, according to a poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Centre. Support for the Russian leader has fallen by eight per cent to 65 per cent since the end of July. Disapproval of Mr Putin has risen from 17 per cent to 26 per cent.

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