SCMP Thursday, August 17, 2000

Foreign aid accepted as hope fades for sub's silent crew

AGENCIES in Moscow and Murmansk

Russia at last called for help yesterday in its desperate bid to save 118 sailors trapped at the bottom of the sea in a nuclear submarine, as two more rescue attempts of its own failed.

British and Norwegian experts were on their way to the icy Barents Sea last night, while from the submarine itself there was fresh sign of life occupants banging the hull after almost 24 hours of silence. ''We are hearing signals, so there is still hope of saving them,'' the deputy head of the navy general staff, Vice-Admiral Vladislav Ilyin, said.

Acoustic contact was lost with the submarine at some time during Tuesday night, prompting fears that oxygen supplies had finally run out on the explosion-damaged vessel. Officials had said the crew, whose number was originally put at 116, would run out of air by tomorrow. But navy chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov suggested that oxygen could possibly last until a week tomorrow.

Admiral Ilyin said President Vladimir Putin had given the order ''to accept help wherever it comes from''.

A British rescue submarine has been airlifted to Trondheim in Norway, from where it will leave today with other equipment and a crew of 27 by ship for the Arctic. However, the vessel will not reach the Kursk until Saturday. Norway wassending 12 divers, who will arrive tomorrow, to work with the British team, and may send ships.

Earlier, in his first public comment on the tragedy, Mr Putin, on a Black Sea holiday, said the situation on board the stricken Kursk submarine was critical.

Since the submarine was revealed on Monday to have plunged 108 metres to the bottom of the Barents Sea at the weekend, Moscow had declined help.

Struggling with a ferocious storm, Russian rescue craft operating in near-zero visibility have tried four times since Tuesday evening to dock with the sunken submarine. One of three mini-subs was damaged and nearly lost yesterday.

The Kursk has been without power and out of contact since its sinking on Saturday during a military exercise. The 150-metre, 14,000-tonne submarine's forward section is believed to have been badly damaged.