Storm hampers Kursk bid

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The Independent Online

Deepsea divers today sliced through the inner hull of the sunken Kursk nuclear submarine, and a top official said that the diving team was on track to start removing crewmen's remains within two days.

Deepsea divers today sliced through the inner hull of the sunken Kursk nuclear submarine, and a top official said that the diving team was on track to start removing crewmen's remains within two days.

It was the fourth day of the risky operation to cut holes in the submarine and remove any remains of the 118 seamen who died when the vessel was ripped by an explosion and sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea. The divers hope to cut seven holes through both hulls around the mangled submarine to pull bodies or body parts out.

Top Russian military officials have warned that safety concerns - including fears about the Kursk's two nuclear reactors, and threats to divers from jagged metal debris inside the wreck - might force the Navy to call off the difficult underwater work 108 meters (330 feet) below the surface.

Over the weekend, divers had carved a passage as far as the thick, pressurized inner hull of the Kursk in the eighth compartment, toward the back of the vessel. A team began Monday morning to slice through the five-centimeter (2.5 inch) thick sheet of steel, said Vladimir Navrotsky, a spokesman for Russia's Northern Fleet.

That hole was scheduled to be finished late Monday or early Tuesday. Divers over the weekend punched a test hole and found no radiation, oil or air bubbles inside the compartment.

Work also began Monday to set up equipment for cutting through the outer hull leading to the seventh compartment, Navrotsky said. The seventh and eighth compartments are packed with mechanical equipment that was used to power the submarine's two propellers and steer the vessel.

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who heads the commission investigating the Kursk tragedy, told reporters in Moscow that the retrieval operation was going according to plan, and that the divers should be able to begin bringing up the remains on Tuesday or Wednesday, Russian news agencies reported.

Meanwhile, the weather worsened at the site of operation, Navrotsky said. High winds were buffeting the Regalia mother-ship, which serves as the headquarters for the retrieval operation. The divers are attached to the Regalia by tethers.

Navrotsky said that the storm on Monday measured four on the Beaufort Scale, with winds of 72 kilometers (43 miles) per hour, and would probably worsen at night. If it reaches a force seven gale, the divers will be forced to surface or risk being jerked about on their tethers, he said.

The Regalia, normally used for underwater work in Norway's offshore oil industry, was at anchor above the Kursk about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Russia's Arctic Coast.

Teams of divers have been working around the clock since Friday, manipulating robot arms and specialized cutting equipment that sprays pressurized water and diamond dust to slice through the sub's hull.

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