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Russian Sub Families Hold Tribute

August 24, 2000

MOSCOW (AP) _ Grieving relatives of the sailors who died on a sunken nuclear submarine sailed out to sea Thursday to lay flowers on the cold gray waters where the ship went down after a shattering explosion.

A boat carrying about 150 relatives headed out into the Barents Sea, bearing flowers including a wreath from President Vladimir Putin, news reports said.

Many relatives of the 118 dead sailors declined to join in a national day of mourning Wednesday, demanding that the bodies of their sons and husbands be retrieved from the sea floor first.

Their bitter stance underlined widespread criticism of the government’s slow and confused response to the Aug. 12 sinking of the Kursk. Much of the criticism centered on Putin, who remained on vacation during the first days of the crisis and made his first public statement four days after the Kursk sank.

Putin on Wednesday said he felt responsible and guilty in the disaster.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and navy chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov submitted their resignations over the loss of the Kursk, one of Russia’s most advanced submarines. Putin said he would not accept the offers. Seeking scapegoats, he said, would be ``the most mistaken response.″

``I take a full sense of responsibility and sense of blame for this tragedy,″ he said in an interview with Russia’s RTR television.

Many observers expected Putin to respond by firing top brass _ as his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had often done.

In a country where a history of authoritarianism runs deep, Putin’s comments demonstrated an unusual sensitivity to public opinion and eagerness to regain the nation’s confidence.

Putin’s interview came a day after he sat through a harrowing three-hour meeting with the sailors’ families at the submarine’s home base of Vidyayevo.

``The conversation was very heartfelt. He admitted his guilt and inactivity, and he said the main thing is a lack of funds,″ said Oksana Dudko, whose husband Sergei was the ship’s deputy commander.

Speaking firmly and somberly in the television interview, Putin defended his initial silence and the slow response to foreign offers of rescue help, saying the navy acted as quickly as it could given how little was known about the submarine’s condition.

He also promised to restore the honor of the beleaguered military and the nation.

``It grieves me, the theory lately that together with the Kursk the honor of the navy also drowned, the honor of Russia,″ Putin said. ``Our country has survived a lot.

``We will overcome it all and restore it all, the military and the navy and the state,″ he said.

The nation lowered flags to half staff and prayed in Orthodox churches Wednesday. Television interrupted some programming, and Russia’s most popular web site, anekdot.ru, displayed an empty black screen throughout the day.

Putin promised that the bodies would be recovered, and said the divers might cut a hole in the ship or lift it to shallower waters. He said talks were under way with Norwegian and Dutch divers.

But Mikhail Kuznetsov, commander of the Vidyayevo submarine garrison, said the work couldn’t begin until after next spring’s thaw.

The Kremlin promised compensation to the families, who had relied on the sailors’ meager salaries for subsistence. The federal government promised a one-time payment equal of an average of $7,000 per family _ equal to 10 years of pay for a submarine officer, said Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko.

Concern has been growing about the ship’s two nuclear reactors and other weaponry. The Norwegian Nuclear Protection Authority said Wednesday it had found no sign of a radiation leak.

The cause of the explosion that mangled the ship was unclear.

The Russian high command says the most likely reason was a collision with a foreign submarine, although no concrete evidence has been provided. A likely scenario was an internal malfunction and explosion in the Kursk’s torpedo compartment.

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