Robotic aid arrives in rush to rescue 7 from Russian sub

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U.S. and British planes carrying robotic undersea vehicles landed in Russia's far east Saturday to help rescue seven sailors trapped in a mini-submarine 600 feet below the Pacific.

Both the U.S. Navy and Britain's military sent so-called Super Scorpios, and workers labored to deploy the vehicles as concerns rose over how much oxygen remained for the seven trapped men.

The Scorpios and their equipment will have to be loaded aboard a vessel and taken to the stricken mini-sub's location.

Moscow asked for outside assistance within hours of news breaking about the sub's plight--a speedy request that was a marked change since the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000, when Russian officials waited until hope was all but exhausted. All 118 died aboard the Kursk.

The mini-sub snagged on an underwater antenna on Thursday and was the subject of desperate rescue efforts and widely varying estimates of how much oxygen remained on board.

The commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet, Adm. Viktor Fyodorov, said early Saturday that there was oxygen for "at least 18 hours," a distinctly less optimistic statement than his earlier assertion that the air would last into Monday. Later Saturday, however, news agencies quoted him as saying there was air for "more than 24 hours."

The confusion over the air supply darkly echoed the sinking of the Kursk almost exactly five years ago. That disaster shocked Russians and deeply embarrassed the country by demonstrating how Russia's once-mighty navy had deteriorated as funding dried up following the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The new crisis is also highly embarrassing for Russia, which will hold an unprecedented joint military exercise with China later this month, including the use of submarines to settle an imaginary conflict in a foreign land. In the exercise, Russia is to field a naval squadron and 17 long-haul aircraft.

No comment from Putin

Navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo told The Associated Press that rescuers had managed to move the sub about 60 yards toward shore with the help of a Russian remote vehicle that was transmitting pictures. Fyodotov, however, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that the process was taking too long and rescuers would try to attach a tow line.

The rescue effort underscores that promises by President Vladimir Putin to improve the navy's equipment have apparently had little effect. Authorities initially said a mini-sub would be sent to try to aid the stranded one, but the navy later said it was not equipped to go that deep.

Putin was criticized for his slow response to the Kursk crisis and reluctance to accept foreign assistance. By early Saturday, Putin had made no public comment on the latest sinking.

Too deep to escape

The sailors were in contact with authorities and were not hurt initially, Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Alexander Kosolapov said. Their mini-submarine was trapped in Beryozovaya Bay, about 45 miles south of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the peninsular region in Russia's far east.

The mini-sub, which became disabled after it was launched from a ship in a combat training exercise, was too deep to allow the sailors to swim to the surface on their own or for divers to reach it, Russian officials said.

Although the Russian navy reportedly ended its deep-sea diving training programs a decade ago because of funding shortages, it does have a device called the Kolokolchik, essentially an updated diving bell, that can be used for some underwater rescues.

However, the mini-sub lies so deep that the device apparently would be useless.

U.S. divers, presumably with better equipment, rushed to the scene to help if necessary. In Belle Chasse, La., a marine services company sent sophisticated deep sea diving suits and a diving crew on board a military plane.

The Japanese ships were not expected to arrive until early next week.

Tangled up in `coastal object'

Dygalo, the navy spokesman, initially said on state-run Rossiya Television that the sub got trapped when its propeller became entangled in a fishing net Thursday. But Fyodorov later said the sub was stuck on an antenna, and Dygalo described the antenna as a "Pacific Fleet coastal infrastructure object."

The trapped AS-28, which looks like a small submarine, was built in 1989. It is about 44 feet long and more than 18 feet high. A vessel of the same type was used in the rescue efforts that followed the Kursk disaster.

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

Despite strong criticism for Putin's response to the Kursk disaster, he was re-elected in 2004 and his supporters command an overwhelming majority in parliament, making the political fallout of the latest sinking likely minimal.

By Vladimir Isachenkov
Associated Press