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Russian navy: tight-lipped and ill-informed on sunken submarine

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MOSCOW (AP) — The world is hanging on every word from the Russian navy about its sunken nuclear submarine and efforts to rescue the crew. Yet the navy has been evasive, contradictory, or wrong about even the most basic information — including when the ship went down.

Analysts say the navy's behavior has been by turns a throwback to the tight-lipped days of the Cold War and a free-for-all of officials announcing dubious, poorly informed theories. It has further discredited the navy, most of whose ships are rusting hulks that dare not leave harbor.

"It's half and half. Sometimes they're lying, sometimes they don't know what's happening," said Vladimir Urban, deputy editor of the Military News Agency and a former naval officer.

Navy officials initially said the accident occurred Sunday. Even after multiple reports emerged suggesting it was Saturday — including a Pentagon statement citing reconnaissance from a U.S. ship in the area — the Russians continued to stick to their version.

Then Wednesday, a naval spokesman conceded the submarine Kursk lost contact Saturday.

When asked what prompted the navy to backtrack, the spokesman sighed and said: "That was the information we were given."

The navy also claimed for two days that it had been in contact with the Kursk's crew after it went down. Then officials admitted Tuesday that there had been no communication with the submarine since it sank, and that they had no idea about conditions inside the Kursk.

"It's a very Cold War, knee-jerk reaction," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst. "It was a real fit of panic. People simply lost their heads and haven't found them yet."

"It's a tradition, especially by the military, especially the navy . . . . When something like this happens, they begin to lie," he said.

The navy's initial theory on what caused the accident was a collision with another vessel — probably a foreign one. Most officials later backed off that version, saying it was more likely an explosion, much more embarrassing for the military if it involved negligence or faulty equipment.

Naval officials have refused to release a list of the sailors aboard, leaving many relatives to wonder desperately.

Anna Kubikova, the mother of a sailor, has been unable to find out whether her son was aboard the Kursk, she told the RTR television network. Many sailors are young conscripts who are sometimes moved from ship to ship with little warning.

"We don't know anything about what's happening," said the wife of a senior officer on the Kursk, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Oksana.

Urban said the navy is too disorganized to conduct a coordinated disinformation effort, and that many officials genuinely do not know what is happening. Unlike in the Soviet era, today those officials are allowed to talk to the media freely.

"They say what they want. It's a lot of fairy tales," he said.

The comments of the navy chief, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, have been among the most cryptic. He was the first to admit how bad things had become when he said Monday that chances of saving the crew were "not very high."

Since then, he has changed his tune repeatedly. He has several times extended his estimate of how much air remains on the submarine, and molded his statements to correspond to those of his superiors.

Felgenhauer said the navy's behavior this week has made all its statements suspect — including its insistence that the submarine's nuclear reactors were turned off and that it wasn't carrying nuclear weapons.

"We don't know if that's true. That's probably just a guess," he said.