- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

From combined dispatches

MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin, under fire for his handling of the Kursk submarine disaster, faced fresh controversy yesterday after he claimed international offers of aid did not come until three days after the sub sank and Russian officials promptly accepted the aid.
Mr. Putin's account, contained in an interview on state-run television yesterday, conflicts with statements by U.S. and British officials that they had offered technical aid to top Russian aides Monday, Aug. 14 a day earlier than Mr. Putin contends and were told the Russians did not need help.
All 118 crewmen were declared dead Monday after more than a week of agonizing waiting that has rocked Mr. Putin's government and dented his popularity at home. Russian flags were lowered to half-staff and church services were held across the country to mourn the lost sailors.
"With regard to foreign help, the first official offer was on Aug. 15," a somber-looking Mr. Putin said, adding that the help was accepted immediately.
But Pentagon officials last week told reporters that Samuel R. Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, had told his Russian counterpart in an Aug. 14 telephone conversation that the United States stood ready to provide rescue, medical and salvage assistance if needed.
British military officials also publicly announced their readiness to help.
Mr. Berger "asked if there was anything the United States might provide," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley told reporters last week, adding that Defense Secretary William S. Cohen repeated the offer to Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 15.
"The response was very cordial and appreciative, but [the Russians] felt they had enough assets on hand to carry out the task at hand," Adm. Quigley recounted.
Russian military officials did not formally accept foreign aid until Wednesday, Aug. 16 five days after the sub sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea following a still-unexplained explosion.
Norwegian divers Monday were able to open a hatch in the rear compartment of the sub and confirm that there were no survivors.
Russia's press and relatives of the dead crewmen have been harshly critical of the government's handling of the Kursk disaster, citing the delayed acceptance of foreign aid, the confusing information put out by military officials about the sinking, and Mr. Putin's own refusal to break off a Black Sea vacation as the frantic rescue effort proceeded.
Mr. Putin said yesterday he felt guilt and responsibility for the tragedy, vowing to search for those responsible.
But in a television interview that had the feel of an address to the nation, he said there would be no hasty decisions and that he had refused the resignations offered by Mr. Sergeyev, Northern Fleet commander Vyacheslav Popov and navy chief Vladimir Kuroyedov.
Many heartbroken relatives of the dead sailors, who attended a heated six-hour session with Mr. Putin Tuesday night in the small military port of Vidyayevo, refused to join in the grieving yesterday, demanding that their sons and husbands be retrieved from the sea floor first.
Marina Stankyevich, wife of one of the crew's doctors, tearfully told an interviewer on the independent NTV network: "I didn't go to meet Putin. I cannot see that person."
A defensive Mr. Putin yesterday lashed out at critics who have accused him and the navy of botching the rescue, saying their criticism was "ill-intentioned" and "unfair."
"I have a great feeling of responsibility and guilt for this tragedy," Mr. Putin told state-run RTR television, taking huge pauses between his words.
Dressed in a black suit and sitting in front of a Russian flag, he said he had been deeply upset during the lengthy meeting with the families of the Kursk victims Tuesday evening, only edited portions of which were broadcast on Russian television.
Mr. Putin also said he would not punish people without reason, and called for unity while attempting to deflect some of the blame to Russia's powerful business "oligarchs."
"Those who are in the first row of the sailors' defenders, they have turned out to be those people who in their time prompted the breakdown of the army, navy and the state," he said.
"They should have sold their villas in France and Spain," he added.

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