The last chance to save trapped sailors

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin said yesterday there was little hope for any of the 118 sailors on the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk as a British rescue vessel raced against time to reach the site today.

President Vladimir Putin said yesterday there was little hope for any of the 118 sailors on the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk as a British rescue vessel raced against time to reach the site today.

A defensive Mr Putin, whose failure to return from holiday until last night provoked an outcry across Russia, said: "There is an extremely small chance for rescue, but it exists." Today the Russian leader is expected to visit the fleet which is trying to rescue the Kursk.

A Russian undersea rescue craft, battling powerful underwater currents and poor visibility, for the first time reached an escape hatch on the Kursk yesterday but was unable to dock because the hull was too badly damaged. It had to resurface in an emergency because its batteries had run out.

This afternoon, the British rescue team with the LR5 mini-submarine on board a Norwegian ship was expected to reach the site where the Kursk sank to the bottom last Saturday. The submarine is 350ft down, with a 12 to 20 degree list, less than previously believed.

"All we want to do is to get into position and do our level best to rescue them," said Commander Alan Hoskins aboard the Normand Pioneer mother ship which is carrying the LR5.

A second Norwegian vessel, the DSV Seaway Eagle, is also on its way to the Barents Sea with 12 deep-sea divers described as the élite of Norway's offshore oil industry. It is expected to reach the rescue area early tomorrow.

There is growing acceptance in Russia that the officers and conscripts on the Kursk are probably all dead. Ilya Klebanov, the deputy prime minister, said earlier "there had been no sounds for quite a long time from within the Kursk".

He said most of the crew would have been in the part of the boat hit by the catastrophe, and the most likely cause was collision with another vessel. No other ship or submarine has reported damage.

The commander of Russia's Northern Fleet, Vyacheslav Popov, acknowledged for the first time that the submarine had been crippled by an explosion, but he said the cause of the blast was not known.

Evidence that internal explosion sank the Kursk increased yesterday when a scientists at a seismic institute in Norway said its equipment showed there had been a small explosion in the Barents Sea just before 8.30am BST on Saturday. Two minutes later there was a second massive explosion, estimated as the equivalent of two tonnes of TNT.

President Putin, who has been fiercely attacked in the Russian media, said he had stayed away because he did not want to hamper rescue work. "Of course, my first wish was to fly to the region of the fleet," he said. "I refrained, and I think I did the right thing because the arrival of non-specialists from any field at the disaster area would not help high-placed officials and more often would hamper work."

He said he knew the commander of the Kursk personally and this made it harder to stomach what would happen.

Russian outrage has been fanned by the publication of the names of the crew by the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, which had been kept a secret by the navy.

The newspaper said it bought the list from a senior naval officer for the equivalent of £450. Relatives of the crew say they have been given little or no official information.

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