Russia mourns as Norwegians say no survivors on submarine

MOSCOW - A desperate effort to reach a sunken Russian nuclear submarine ended Monday, when divers said none of the 118 sailors was alive more than a week after a catastrophic explosion left them inside a crumpled wreck on the bottom of the sea.

Norwegian divers who finally opened the escape hatch and forced their way into the hull of the Kursk after working in the Arctic depths for more than 24 hours said the submarine was completely flooded. There was no sign that any of the crew had survived for long inside the mangled warship 350 feet below the surface.

Dejected and emotional, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev expressed condolences to the sailors' families and admitted the rescue attempt had been flawed in a Monday night interview on Russia's largest network, ORT.

''We are all mourning together with the relatives and loved ones,'' he said, then paused and sighed deeply. ''We will never forget what the sailors did, that they did all that was possible and impossible.''

Relatives and friends of the crew collapsed with grief after rescuers found no survivors. Other Russians, who were transfixed by television and radio reports of the drama, assailed their government for its slow, bumbling response to the Aug. 12 disaster and wondered when their crisis-wracked nation will see stability.

''Forgive me for not saving your sailors,'' the commander of the Northern Fleet, Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, said to victims' wives and mothers in a televised statement. He said the crew was not to blame for the Kursk's sinking.

The Russian government resisted international help for days, even as its rescue capsules repeatedly failed to reach the Kursk's damaged escape hatch. A British mini-submarine brought to the site was never used.

''They have killed the boys, that's all,'' said Yekaterina Dyachkova, a retiree in Murmansk, headquarters of the Northern Fleet, struggling to hold back tears. ''The (navy) should have called for help immediately, but they waited for so many days.''

Sergeyev said that during the rescue operation, ''It's possible that we made mistakes.'' He complained that meager funding left the navy short of divers and modern rescue equipment.

''Our country has been robbed and shredded for the past several years, and the armed forces receive less than 50 percent of what the budget promises,'' he said.

Moscow was considering ways to raise the submarine, which contained some of the navy's most advanced weapons and equipment, but the precarious project could take weeks or months. There was also growing concern about the submarine's two nuclear reactors, though the Norwegian divers found no signs Monday of radiation leaks.

Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, chief of the Northern Fleet, said on Russia's RTR television that Norwegian officials had agreed in principle to help retrieve the bodies, but did not say how.

''With the equipment we have, there is no possibility to do any more than we have done,'' Norwegian Vice Adm. Einar Skorgen said in a radio interview. Retrieving bodies, he said, ''is a totally different operation.''

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said the cash-strapped Russian government would make an international appeal for funds to raise the Kursk. He suggested it would take weeks just to draw up plans for the salvage operation.

World leaders expressed condolences to the sailors' families Monday, and the U.S. Defense Department said it would consider any Russian request for help in salvaging the submarine. Washington made several offers to assist in the rescue effort but was turned down.

Even after the Norwegians determined that there were no survivors, the Russian government was reluctant to admit the crew was dead, making an announcement only hours later.

President Vladimir Putin, who did not interrupt his summer vacation when the disaster hit, has been harshly criticized by the Russian media and many ordinary people. The speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, Yegor Stroyev, called Monday for a parliamentary probe into the accident and criticized the weak state of the impoverished military.

It has been the worst blow to the president's stunning popularity since his election in March, though observers say it won't be crippling.

In an indication of how influential public opinion has become in Russia, the Kremlin was frantically trying to stem the political damage. Putin on Monday ordered his Cabinet to help provide aid and support to the sailors' relatives.

About 75 family members of the Kursk sailors came to Murmansk on Monday on a special charter flight from Moscow. The Navy whisked them away to a military facility outside the city where other relatives of the sailors have been closeted.

So far, the Navy has only provided food and a place to stay at the military base and brought in a few psychotherapists. Most family members had to pay their own airfare to Murmansk.

The navy's focus shifted to studying what caused the explosion on one of Russia's most advanced submarines. U.S. and Norwegian seismic stations both reported two explosions at the time the Kursk went down. But Sergeyev, the defense minister, said Monday that Russian monitors registered three explosions.

The blasts, which probably involved up to 30 warheads stored in the torpedo compartment at the front, caused massive damage throughout the submarine.

Sergeyev said an investigative panel thought the most likely cause of the accident was an initial collision between the Kursk and another ''underwater object'' comparable in size.

He hinted that the object could have been a submarine and said the object was supposedly detected by Russian ships but later never found. No other ships in the area at the time have reported any damage, and no one has been able to offer evidence to confirm a collision. The Russians have said another possible scenario involved a collision with a World War II mine.

Sergeyev said other Oscar-class submarines would remain berthed until the cause of the Kursk disaster is determined.


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