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British Sub On Way To Aid Russians

August 17, 2000

TRONDHEIM, Norway (AP) _ A British rescue team and a sophisticated mini-submarine were headed Thursday on a desperate journey to try to save 118 sailors trapped on a sunken Russian nuclear submarine, while Norwegian divers also en route faced delays.

The supply ship was expected to arrive Saturday afternoon and begin its first descent that evening, a week after the Russian submarine dropped 350 feet to the floor of the Barents Sea.

Meanwhile, a second ship with Norwegian deep-sea divers ran into complications that caused its owner to warn that it would not arrive until early Monday, rather than Saturday as officials had hoped.

``A 24-hour delay would not be a good thing in a situation like this,″ Foreign Ministry spokesman Karsten Klepsvik said.

The Russian navy said it has no idea of conditions inside the submarine Kursk, including whether anyone inside was still alive. A British military officer refused to give up hope.

``You cannot tell whether it is too late. No one can tell if they’re out of oxygen,″ Royal Navy Cmdr. David Stanesby said in Trondheim, 280 miles north of Norway’s capital, Oslo.

The white LR5 mini-sub was flown into the port Wednesday and loaded overnight onto a red Norwegian supply ship, which set off Thursday morning.

The Normand Pioneer was expected to take about 52 hours to travel some 920 miles to the site, arriving Saturday.

The mini-submarine _ operated by two pilots and a crew member in the rescue chamber that can hold 15 passengers, will take down a three-member Russian medical and technical team to assess the condition of the crew before any evacuation, British defense officials said.

Royal Navy Cmdr. Alan Hoskins said earlier that the LR5 also planned to carry oxygen, food and electricity on its first trip down.

But the Norwegian Seaway Eagle, heading north with 12 deep-sea divers aboard, was slowed by a need for supplies and safety requirements. Its owner, the Stolt Offshore AS concern, said the ship would not be able to reach the scene until early Monday, Moscow time.

Stolt spokesman Julian Thompson said the ship, which had been working in Norway’s offshore oil fields about 800 miles south of the accident, had to make an approximately three-hour stop for supplies on Friday and could not reach the site sooner than Sunday even at top speed.

The Foreign Ministry said the main obstacle was a safety requirement that it have a special rescue vehicle on board and officials were searching for a way around the rule. The government chartered the Seaway Eagle on short notice Wednesday and had already extended its estimated time of arrival from Friday to Saturday.

British and Norwegian officials, meanwhile, rejected suggestions that the mini-submarine was flown to Norway instead of one of the Russian military bases much closer to the site because Russia was not eager for Western help.

Stanesby said loading the equipment in Trondheim was the quickest option because the ship was nearby and had all the facilities needed. He said he doubted the rescuers would have arrived faster even if the Russians had asked for help earlier.

Stanesby said if they had flown straight to Russian military bases closer to the scene, they might have had to wait two days for the Norwegian mother ship’s arrival anyway.

The Norwegian ship was chosen because it has the capability to hold steady in rough seas, and because its crew was already trained for such operations.

The Kursk submarine is in international waters off the northwestern Russian coast and about 185 miles from Norwegian territory.

Russia initially refused foreign help but relented after days of frustrated attempts to lower rescue capsules to the submarine, and it turned to Norway and Britain, both members of NATO.

The head of the British operation said the LR5 submarine differed from the Russian escape vessels because it can operate independently of its control ship and can navigate with an accuracy within inches.

The British Ministry of Defense said Thursday the mini-submarine, designed to fit NATO submarines, should be able to hook up to the Kursk’s escape hatch.

Hoskins said the mini-submarine has never been used in a live operation.

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