VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (AP) – Russian, U.S. and British forces were scrambling to rescue seven Russian sailors trapped with dwindling oxygen supplies 600 feet under the Pacific on a mini-submarine caught on an underwater antenna.

The commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet, Adm. Viktor Fyodorov, said rescuers were hoping to tow the AS-28 naval sub into shallower waters off the Kamchatka Peninsula and send divers down to the crewmen who have been trapped in it for two days at a depth of 600 feet. A British military plane and a U.S. Air Force jet carrying remote-controlled underwater robots took off for the disaster scene in Russia’s Far East, north of Japan.

Moscow asked for outside assistance within hours of news breaking about the sub’s plight – a speedy request that was a marked change since the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000, when Russian officials waited until hope was all but exhausted. All 118 died aboard the Kursk.

The vessel became stuck on Thursday, and was the subject of desperate rescue efforts and widely varying estimates of how much oxygen remained on board.

Both the U.S. and British rescue teams could reach the site off the Kamchatka Peninsula in time – if earlier estimates that there was enough oxygen to keep the seven alive for 24 hours held true.

Fyodorov said early Saturday that there was oxygen for “at least 18 hours,” a distinctly less optimistic statement than his earlier assertion that the air would last into Monday. Later Saturday, however, news agencies quoted him as saying there was air for “more than 24 hours.”

“The situation is not simple. I don’t want to overdramatize the situation, but also at the same time, I don’t want to say it is absolutely, so to speak, easy and momentarily resolvable,” Fyodorov said in comments televised on NTV.

The confusion over the air supply darkly echoed the sinking of the Kursk almost exactly five years ago. That disaster shocked Russians and deeply embarrassed the country by demonstrating how Russia’s once-mighty navy had deteriorated as funding dried up following the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The new crisis is also highly embarrassing for Russia, which will hold an unprecedented joint military exercise with China later this month, including the use of submarines to settle an imaginary conflict in a foreign land. In the exercise, Russia is to field a naval squadron and 17 long-haul aircraft.

Navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo told The Associated Press that rescuers had managed to move the sub about 60 yards toward shore. Fyodotov, however, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that the process was taking too long and rescuers would try to attach a tow line.

The rescue effort underscores that promises by President Vladimir Putin to improve the navy’s equipment have apparently had little effect. Authorities initially said a mini-sub would be sent to try to aid the stranded one, but the navy later said it was not equipped to go that deep.

Putin was criticized for his slow response to the Kursk crisis and reluctance to accept foreign assistance. By early Saturday, Putin had made no public comment on the latest sinking.

The sailors were in contact with authorities and were not hurt, Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Alexander Kosolapov said. Their mini-submarine was trapped in Beryozovaya Bay, about 45 miles south of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the peninsular region in Russia’s far east.

The United States and Britain sent unmanned underwater rescue vehicles called Super Scorpios, and Japanese ships also rushed to the area. It was the first time since the World War II era that a U.S. military plane has been allowed to fly to the peninsula, home to numerous Russian military facilities.

The flight from Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego to Petropavlovsk on Russia’s eastern coast was expected to take 10 to 12 hours. The Scorpios and their equipment will then have to be loaded aboard a vessel and taken to the stricken mini-sub’s location.

“We’re the 911 force for submarine rescue,” said Navy Capt. Russell Ervin, a reserve with Deep Submergence Unit 5. “In our business, minutes count.”

The British Scorpio, being carried on a Royal Air Force C-17 transport plane, was expected to arrive at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky at about 7 p.m. Saturday local time, or 2 a.m. EDT. The U.S. plane was expected to land about 10:30 p.m. local time, or 5:30 a.m. EDT.

The mini-sub, which became disabled after it was launched from a ship in a combat training exercise, was too deep to allow the sailors to swim to the surface on their own or for divers to reach it, Russian officials said.

Although the Russian navy reportedly ended its deep-sea diving training programs a decade ago because of funding shortages, it does have a device called the Kolokolchik, essentially an updated diving bell, that can be used for some underwater rescues.

However, the mini-sub lies so deep that the device apparently would be useless.

U.S. divers, presumably with better equipment, rushed to the scene to help if necessary. In Belle Chasse, La., a marine services company loaded sophisticated deep sea diving suits and a diving crew aboard a military plane.

The Japanese ships were not expected to arrive until early next week.

Navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo initially said on state-run Rossiya television that the sub got trapped when its propeller became entangled in a fishing net Thursday. But Fyodorov later said the sub was stuck on an antenna. Dygalo, the Russian navy spokesman, described the antenna as a “Pacific Fleet coastal infrastructure object.”

The trapped AS-28, which looks like a small submarine, was built in 1989. It is about 44 feet long and more than 18 feet high. A vessel of the same type was used in the rescue efforts that followed the Kursk disaster.

Since Soviet times, the Kamchatka Peninsula has housed several major submarine bases and numerous other military facilities, and large areas of it remain closed to outsiders.

Despite strong criticism for Putin’s response to the Kursk disaster, he was re-elected in 2004 and his supporters command an overwhelming majority in parliament, making the political fallout of the latest sinking likely minimal.



Associated Press writers Seth Hettena at Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego and Mary Foster in Belle Chasse, La., contributed to this report.

AP-ES-08-05-05 2202EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.