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Russian rescue ships stranded by cash shortage during submarine crisis

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MURMANSK, Russia (AP) — While Russian sailors struggled to try to reach a sunken submarine, some of the navy's best rescue vessels sat disabled in their docks, underlining the disrepair afflicting the country's once-powerful fleet.

Government financing for the armed forces has melted away since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russian navy has been plagued by theft, aging equipment it can't afford to repair, and rusting ships it is unable to replace.

The severe funding shortage has weakened the navy to the degree that it is unable even to combat poachers in Russia's waters, government officials have said.

Some 1,000 ships have been decommissioned in the past 10 years because the navy couldn't afford maintenance, according to navy commanders.

One Russian commander, Rear Adm. Nikolai Konorev, even said in a recent newspaper interview that if the funding shortages continue at the current level, the navy could go out of existence by 2015.

Around the Northern Fleet headquarters in the Arctic port of Murmansk, the coastline has turned into a giant marine junkyard, with hundreds of ruptured and rusting ship hulls littering the shore.

The military bars visitors from the naval facilities and ship junkyards, but the mounds of rusting metal can be seen from boats that cross Kola Bay.

Sand and silt has partly buried some of the ships. Residents rummage among the wreckage, ripping off pieces of metal to sell for scrap.

Even the ships that are officially still in service often cannot leave port. Navy officials say that 70 percent of their vessels need major repairs.

Amid the lack of government funding, the navy's emergency rescue service has been working under commercial contracts with private firms to earn money for repairing its ships, toiling at oil terminals of Russia's Lukoil giant, said the chief of the Northern Fleet staff, Vice-Adm. Mikhail Motsak.

"We earn money wherever we can," Motsak told reporters in Murmansk.

As the navy has little money to pay its officers, some turn to selling off equipment, further aggravating the fleet's condition.

Last year, a nuclear submarine in Russia's Northern Fleet was disabled after thieves pilfered vital equipment. In February, a submarine in the Pacific Fleet was looted of radioactive fuel. Four sailors and a retired officer were arrested.

The navy's disrepair hit home Aug. 12, when the nuclear submarine Kursk went down in the Barents Sea with 118 sailors aboard, and two of the Northern Fleet's most lauded rescue vessels — the Titov and the Pamir — were unable to sail out to help.

"The Titov has been out of commission for a long time as it is undergoing repairs," Motsak said. The Pamir was recently renovated, but the navy's doesn't have enough money to make it seaworthy and it remains stranded in the naval facility of Severomorsk.

Rescuers at the Northern Fleet's Emergency Rescue Department say they pool their personal funds to buy instruments, when they receive their monthly pay of $535.

Scores of rescue vessels are stranded at bases, some with minor breakdowns because the navy cannot find a few hundred dollars to fix them, said one officer who worked at the rescue service for six months before quitting last month.

A lack of funds also led the government to disband Murmansk's deep-sea divers' service in 1995 — a unit that some say might have been able to rescue at least some of the Kursk sailors if it had been deployed right away.

According to some Russian media reports, the funding shortage has been so acute that the Kursk apparently lacked reserve batteries to generate power in case of emergency. The navy has refused to answer specific questions on the submarine's condition.

"The Kursk tragedy has shown that it's not only wrong but criminal to develop unfounded illusions about our combat readiness," the daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote in a front-page commentary last week.