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A soft landing for returning cosmonauts

Two Russians, a Frenchman and his six salamanders landed softly in the deep snow of the Kazakh steppe on Thursday, leaving behind a Russian-NASA crew aboard the aging Mir space station.

Mission Control said veteran Russian commander Anatoly Solovyov, engineer Pavel Vinogradov and French air force pilot Leopold Eyharts landed safely in their Soyuz TM-26 capsule at 0910 GMT near the northern Kazakh village of Arkalyk.Viktor Blagov, deputy flight director, told a news conference at Mission Control outside Moscow that the capsule touched down on its side rather than its base.

"Solovyov thinks this was even better as the wind did not drag the parachute along," he said.

Snowstorms raged in the area as the crew ended their three-hour descent from orbit. Blagov said the snow was thick, which ensured "a really double-soft landing." The three men were due to fly to Moscow later on Thursday.

Soyuz left Mir at 0552 GMT, five minutes late because of extra checks on the trio's spacesuits.

"What a pity," Solovyov said as the Soyuz slipped away from Mir and the cross-like shape of the station receded. "The more you fly, the more you feel sorry when you have to leave."

Suits aside, the main difficulty in the cosmonauts' trip home appeared to be the weather on the ground. Temperatures dropped to minus -22 Fahrenheit, clouds were low and visibility was no more than 150 feet.

As a result, only one out of eight rescue helicopters took off from Kostanai and flew the 250 miles to the landing area some 30 20 miles from the town of Arkalyk.