Western teams given little chance of finding survivors on Russian sub

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The Independent Online

Norwegian divers examined a Russian nuclear submarine Sunday, trying to find a way into the shattered vessel after an initial check showed that the escape hatch was badly damaged, officials said.

Norwegian divers examined a Russian nuclear submarine Sunday, trying to find a way into the shattered vessel after an initial check showed that the escape hatch was badly damaged, officials said.

A British rescue mini-submarine waited on the surface as the divers checked the hull of the Kursk, knocking on the side to see if there was air inside. A decision would be made later Sunday about deploying the British LR5 vessel.

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said the escape hatch was so badly damaged that it was unlikely the British mini-submarine could latch on. He said hopes of entering the submarine now focused on the Norwegian divers.

"The British submarine is similar to ours, so we believe that it will be unable to dock either," Klebanov told Russia's RTR television from the rescue scene.

The Russian navy has virtually ruled out hope that any of the Kursk's crew are still alive. The navy said Saturday that most of the 118-man crew died Aug. 12 when a huge explosion wrecked the Kursk and any survivors almost certainly drowned on the sea bed.

Klebanov gave further details on the damage Sunday, saying the submarine's front five or six compartments were flooded within seconds. He said some crew might have survived for a while in the back three compartments.

"Water almost instantly flooded the submarine's hull up to the fifth or sixth compartments. The crew in those sections died almost instantaneously and the submarine became uncontrollable," he said.

The escape hatch is at the rear of the submarine, but it too suffered major damage, officials said.

The divers, working at a depth of 108 meters (350 feet), were moving slowly because of the depth and difficult conditions around the Kursk, navy officials said. Each dive was taking several hours, they said.

It appeared to be the first time divers had descended to the Kursk since rescue efforts began a week ago. Russian escape capsules tried to reach the Kursk repeatedly, but the Russian navy reportedly had no skilled divers.

A Norwegian video camera was first lowered to check the hull and the water was checked for possible radiation leaks from the Kursk's two nuclear reactors, officials said.

Russian officials said the rescue operations would continue at least through Sunday, but indicated the emphasis was shifting to what caused the tragedy on the Kursk, one of the navy's newest and most powerful submarines.

Many Russians said the Western aid was too late to make any difference, and expressed anger about the way President Vladimir Putin's government handled the rescue effort and took so long to ask for foreign help. Moscow for days declined offers of Western help.

"They should have accepted help as soon as they learned that the vessel was in distress," said Tikhon Bagryantsev, a Navy retiree whose son, Capt. Vladimir Bagryantsev, was feared among the dead. "Every minute counts there."

Moscow's announcement that the crew was almost certainly dead, just as the British rescue team arrived on Saturday, could be seen as an attempt by some Russian officials to show that the Western squads could do nothing.

A government commission investigating the disaster said Saturday that the Kursk suffered a massive explosion, which ripped through the confined space of the submarine. The explosion apparently was in the forward torpedo compartment, which was loaded with up to 30 warheads.

But it's unclear what triggered the explosion. Russian officials cite either a collision or an internal problem.

Klebanov said Sunday a Second World War mine or a collision with a foreign submarine were possible scenarios. The U.S. navy, which had two submarines in the area at the time, said none of its vessels were involved in the incident.

Klebanov said there were up to three foreign submarines in the area when the Kursk was lost.

A probable scenario was that a torpedo in the Kursk's forward compartment exploded, setting off a much bigger explosion. U.S. and Norwegian authorities detected two explosions in the area last Saturday at the time the Kursk was lost.

The extent of the damage raised new questions about the conditions of the two nuclear reactors aboard the Kursk, which Russian officials had initially insisted were safely shut down.