Russian rescue capsule reaches submarine, but cannot link up

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A rescue capsule reached one of the escape hatches on a sunken Russian nuclear submarine for the first time Friday but was unable to gain access because it was so badly damaged, a navy official said.

A rescue capsule reached one of the escape hatches on a sunken Russian nuclear submarine for the first time Friday but was unable to gain access because it was so badly damaged, a navy official said.

The Russian rescue craft returned to the surface after repeated attempts failed, said navy spokesman Capt. Igor Babenko. A larger escape capsule took over and was trying to link up with the hatch, he said.

Four Russian rescue capsules have been trying since Tuesday to reach the 118 men aboard the shattered hulk of the Kursk submarine, lying 108 meters (350 feet) below the surface. Powerful currents and poor visibility have repeatedly beaten the capsules back. The submarine is also leaning at a sharp angle.

One finally managed to reach one of the Kursk's two escape hatches Friday but was unable to latch on to it with a special mechanism designed to establish an airtight connection, said Babenko.

"The grabbing device could not get hold of the hatch" because it was badly damaged, he said.

The capsules were having better success as the weather in the rescue area improved Friday, making it easier for them to maneuver, navy officers said. But one had to make an emergency ascent Friday after suffering mechanical problems, Russia's RTR television said.

Navy officials said earlier there was no sign of life on the submarine, which went down six days ago during major naval exercises in the Barents Sea.

Underwater inspections of the Kursk show massive damage reaching from the bow to the conning tower, which was much more extensive than earlier thought, officials said.

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, the head of a government commission that reviewed the rescue effort Thursday, said there was a "terrifying hole" on the starboard side of the submarine.

"A rather big part of the crew was in the part of the boat that was hit by the catastrophe that developed at lightning speed," Klebanov told reporters in Murmansk, home of the Russian Northern Fleet.

"There have been no sounds for quite a long time" from within the Kursk, he added.

Both Klebanov and the Navy commander, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, have said that any survivors were expected to run out of oxygen Friday, but other high-ranking naval officers have given them until next week.

British and Norwegian rescue teams were not expected to reach the site until Saturday at the earliest, after Russia initially resisted accepting western aid. A British navy team with a sophisticated rescue submarine was heading to the area on a ship.

President Vladimir Putin abruptly returned to Moscow on Friday after criticism of his decision to stay on vacation when news of the disaster broke. He said he did not fly to the rescue site because "The arrival of non-specialists and high-ranking officials to the scene of disaster does not help, but usually interferes," according to the Interfax news agency.

Russian officials have not determined how the Kursk got into trouble Aug. 12. Officials have offered various explanations, including a collision, an internal explosion or even contact with a World War II mine.

Klebanov said evidence suggested the submarine hit an unspecified "huge, heavy object" about 20 meters (66 feet) below surface and plunged to the sea bottom in seconds.

But officials could not explain how a highly sophisticated submarine could crash into a large object. Submarines use radar and other guiding devices that allow them to spot objects many kilometers (miles) away under water.

There have been no reports of other ships being damaged and the U.S. Navy has said its vessels in the area were not involved. Alexander Ushakov, deputy head of the Transport Ministry's northern sea route, said Friday there were no civilian ships in the area when the Kursk sank.

U.S. submarines monitoring Russian Navy exercises when the Kursk was lost detected two explosions at the time, the second much larger than the first, U.S. officials said.

A seismic monitoring center in Norway revealed Friday that it registered two explosions near the Kursk when it sank.

A likely scenario was that a torpedo in the Kursk's forward torpedo compartment exploded, setting off a much bigger explosion in the compartment which is packed with torpedoes.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper published a special issue Friday with a list of the men aboard the Kursk, claiming it had paid navy officials 18,000 rubles (dlrs 650) for the names. The navy has not officially said who is aboard, angering family members and fueling criticism of the military's actions.

"There's a lot of hearsay about what's going on," Irina Lyachina, wife of the Kursk's commander, said in Murmansk. "I hope they will tell me the truth when the time comes."

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