- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — A Russian minisubmarine carrying seven sailors was entangled on a fishing net 625 feet down on the Pacific floor yesterday, sparking a frantic scramble by Russian, U.S. and British forces to rescue the sailors before their dwindling oxygen supply runs out.

A Russian vessel attempted to tow the stranded sub to shallower waters as the United States and Britain rushed unmanned vehicles there at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin to help in rescue efforts.

It was not clear whether there was enough oxygen aboard the minisub to keep the crew alive long enough for remote-controlled vehicles to reach them from bases in San Diego and Britain. Estimates varied on whether there was enough oxygen to cover from 18 hours to one full day.

Russia’s Pacific fleet commander Adm. Viktor Fyodorov told NTV television early today by telephone that a Russian rescue vessel snagged the minisubmarine with a cable and was trying to drag it to shallower waters.

Adm. Fyodorov said there was enough oxygen to keep the crew alive for at least 18 hours. Interfax earlier quoted him as saying the air supply would last until Monday.

The Russian sub’s propeller became entangled in a fishing net Thursday, navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said on state-run Rossiya television. The accident occurred in Beryozovaya Bay, about 50 miles south of Kamchatka’s capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, officials said.

“There is air remaining on the underwater apparatus for a day — one day,” Capt. Dygalo said at 6 a.m. EDT. “The operation continues. We have a day, and intensive, active measures will be taken to rescue the AS-28 vessel and the people aboard.”

Fleet spokesman Capt. Alexander Kosolapov said contact had been made with the sailors, who were not hurt.

The minisub, called an AS-28, initially was too deep to allow the sailors to swim to the surface on their own or divers to reach it, officials said. However, dragging the sub into shallower waters could make such an escape or rescue possible.

The problem developed just before Russia and China are to hold an unprecedented joint military exercise later this month, which will include the use of submarines to settle an imaginary conflict in a foreign land. In the exercise, Russia is to field a navy squadron and 17 long-haul aircraft.

This week’s crisis evoked comparisons with the 2000 disaster involving the nuclear submarine Kursk. The Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea after explosions on board, killing all 118 seamen aboard.

However, some Kursk sailors survived for hours as oxygen ran out, and Mr. Putin was criticized severely for waiting several days before asking for international assistance. Also, Russian divers discharged by the navy for lack of funds said at the time their own offers to help were rebuffed.

This time, Russia waited just a day before seeking help.

Russia appealed to the United States and Japan for assistance, the Interfax news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov as saying.

The U.S. Navy was loading two robotic rescue vehicles aboard a massive C-5 transport plane at Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego for the flight to Russia.

“When we got word the Russians were in need, we were more than happy to help out a friend,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Ryan Lindsay, the C-5 pilot.

The unmanned vehicle, called a Super Scorpio, can reach depths of up to 5,000 feet and is equipped with high-powered lights, sonar and video cameras, said Capt. Matt Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet in Honolulu.

The British vehicle was being loaded onto a Royal Air Force transport plane at Scotland’s Prestwick airport and was expected to arrive at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the city nearest the site, at about 5 a.m. today, said Anton Atrashkin, spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow.

That means the British vessel likely will arrive before the U.S. vessel.

Since Soviet times, the Kamchatka Peninsula has housed several major submarine bases and numerous other military facilities, and large areas of it have remained closed to outsiders.

Airlifting a U.S. underwater vehicle to the area will mark the first time since the World War II era that a U.S. military plane has been allowed to fly there.

Associated Press reporters Robert Burns in Washington and Greg Risling in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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