Russia claims sub hit by foreign vessel

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The Independent Online

A Russian nuclear submarine with more than 100 sailors aboard plunged to the floor of the Barents Sea after colliding with a foreign submarine, Russia said last night.

A Russian nuclear submarine with more than 100 sailors aboard plunged to the floor of the Barents Sea after colliding with a foreign submarine, Russia said last night.

"There are signs of a big and serious collision," the commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, announced, as frantic efforts to rescue the sailors continued.

But after earlier playing down the scale of the incident, which occurred on Sunday in Russia's Arctic north, the Commander admitted that chances of reaching the stricken vessel, Kursk, were slim.

"Despite all the efforts being taken, the probability of a successful outcome is not very high. All rescue forces have been mobilised", he said, adding: "The situation is bad."

The vessel is believed to be 150 metres down, a depth which would make rescue extremely difficult because of the water pressure. Experts believe the crew lost control of the vessel after the collision, causing it to plunge to the sea bed. The submarine, which is five years old, is one of the most advanced in the Russia's ramshackle nuclear fleet.

The Ministry of Defence denied that any British submarines were in the area on Sunday when the collision is believed to have occurred.

In Washington, the Pentagon said: "There is no indication at this point" that a United States vessel was involved.

The US said one of its electronic surveillance ships the USNS Loyal was operating in the Barents Sea at the time but they would not say whether a Navy submarine was in the area. The surveillance ship, was monitoring the Russian naval exercise which Pentagon officials described as the largest of the year.

British, French and American submarines routinely carry out covert intelligence gathering activities in the Barents Sea, sometimes playing cat and mouse with Russian submarines.

There have been collisions, and experts have warned many times that this risked causing a nuclear disaster. "There have been a number of close calls in the Barents Sea during the Cold War," a spokesman at the Ministry of Defence said last night.

There are usually one or two British or American submarines operating close to Murmansk and during exercises this may rise to four. They operate in the area north of the entrances to Kola and Motovsky Bays, shadowing Russian submarines and other vessels.

Russian rescue ships rushed to the area, off the port of Murmansk, in a frantic effort to reach the sailors on board before supplies of oxygen ran out. There were conflicting reports as to whether any of the crew were injured or dead. Ships were in Radio contact with the vessel and one report said oxygen was being pumped to the crew.

The Russian navy said its equipment had earlier picked up the sounds of people knocking on the submarine's hull and was able to determine from that that the crew were still alive. Russia does not have advanced submarine rescue vessels and Russian experts said the crew may be forced to escape by swimming out through the submarine's torpedo tubes.

By last night the US military had not been asked to assist in a rescue of the Russian crew. The American navy has a rescue vessel designed to bring the crew of a US or allied submarine to safety, even at depths lower than that where the disabled Russian submarine lay trapped.

As hopes of reaching the stricken vessel faded, the Russian navy insisted there were no nuclear weapons on board. The vessel's two nuclear reactors had been shut down, a spokesman said.

Norway has a scientific vessel in the region, off Russia's Kola Peninsula, and reported no sign of radiation leaks.

The stricken submarine is capable of carrying up to 24 underwater-to-surface guided missiles. They can be armed with nuclear or conventional warheads. Western experts said there was a high chance of radioactive leaks if the submarine's hull is holed or damaged. Starved of funding, the Russian navy has an abysmal record for accidents, the worst previous one involving a nuclear submarine, was in April 1989. In that incident the vessel sank in the Barents Sea after a fire 200 miles north of the coast of Norway. Forty-two of the 69 Soviet sailors aboard died. A Russian newspaper, the Izvestia reported recently that, according to the most conservative estimate, 507 submarine crew members have died during the 40-year history of Russian nuclear submarines.