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Grim Russia says crew likely killed in sub explosion

Norwegian divers begin rescue efforts but may be too late

SHARE Grim Russia says crew likely killed in sub explosion

MOSCOW — Norwegian divers with video equipment went down to a sunken Russian submarine today in a final attempt to find survivors trapped for a week, even though Russian officials said all 118 seamen aboard were probably dead.

The Western rescue effort, delayed by initial Russian reluctance to accept foreign aid, also involved a British mini-submarine that waited its turn to dive into the cold depths of the northern Barents Sea.

The Norwegian and British teams were brought to the disaster site by two Norwegian ships, which moved into position above the mangled Kursk before dawn.

The divers, working at a depth of 350 feet, will assess the damage suffered by the submarine when it sank Aug. 12, a task that is expected to take "several hours," a spokesman for the British Defense Ministry said.

According to Russian reports, the divers will try to manually unscrew a lid leading to the submarine's escape chamber. Pressure-measuring devices located inside the hatch are expected to give the rescue team an idea about conditions inside the Kursk.

The divers also are to assess chances for the British mini-submarine to latch on to the damaged escape hatch. The Russian ITAR-Tass news agency said rescuers would be using underwater robots to clear away debris.

But even before the Western rescue effort moved into high gear, Russia's Navy announced that most of the crew apparently died when a massive explosion shattered the Kursk on Aug. 12, slamming it to the bottom of the sea.

Most of the Kursk's crew apparently died in the first minutes of the disaster, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov told reporters Saturday. Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak said in a special announcement on state-run RTR television that any survivors likely drowned as the ship filled with water.

"Most possibly, we will have to admit that our worst expectations have materialized," Motsak said.

Though officials said they had not ruled out all hope, it was their starkest statement so far after days of insisting that there were survivors and hope of rescuing at least part of the crew.

The navy said Saturday there had been no contact with the crew at least since Monday, and remarks from some officials indicated there had never been contact. Motsak indicated the emphasis would be on finding what had happened to the Kursk.

"The essential thing is to find them alive or dead and get them to shore to do what must be done," he said.

The comments came several hours before the British mini-submarine arrived at the site, followed later by the divers.

Many Russians said the Western aid was too late to make any difference. They expressed anger about the way President Vladimir Putin's government handled the rescue effort and took so long to ask for foreign help.

"Of course it was absurd that they were misleading us for so long. It was clear that if people were not saved in the first two or three days they're no longer alive," said Galina Klimova, a resident of Murmansk, an Arctic city where the rescue effort was headquartered.

Relatives of the Kursk's crew, who had been trickling into Murmansk from all across Russia, were closeted Saturday at a nearby navy facility. Throughout the city, despair and resignation were mixed with disgust.

"It was just a waste of time," retiree Valentina Boldyreva said sadly of the rescue effort. "It's horrible."

Reacting to criticism that he did not interrupt his summer vacation when news of the disaster broke, Putin returned to Moscow ahead of schedule Saturday and held meetings with top officials.

Seas were calm in the rescue area for the first time in days Saturday. Russian rescuers continued struggling to reach the submarine, but were frustrated by powerful currents and almost zero visibility on the sea floor.

A government commission investigating the disaster said Saturday that the Kursk suffered a massive explosion which ripped through the confined space of the submarine. The explosion apparently was in the forward torpedo compartment, which was loaded with up to 30 warheads.

A probable scenario was that a torpedo in the Kursk's forward compartment blew up, setting off a much bigger explosion.

The extent of the damage raised new questions about the conditions of the two nuclear reactors aboard the Kursk, which Russian officials had initially insisted were safely shut down.