MOSCOW - Grim Russian officials admitted Saturday that all 118 sailors trapped for a week in a mangled submarine were probably dead, even as a British mini-sub and Norwegian divers joined the effort to reach the vessel sunken in the Arctic depths.
What little hope remained for any survivors was pinned on the new arrivals. The Norwegian team approached the site after midnight, but would reportedly not start their dive until after dawn - apparently to avoid diving in darkness.
Most of the Kursk's crew apparently died in the first minutes of the disaster, when a massive explosion shattered the vessel Aug. 12 and it slammed into the bottom of the sea, 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 inisiting 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. RTR television reported the divers would not stary work until 6 a.m. They will try to open the Kursk's damaged hatch and determine whether the pressure inside is low enough for anyone to have survived inside, RTR reported. If it is, they will summon the British mini-submarine and guide it to the hatch.
British commander Mike Finney said the divers would go down first to check out safety conditions for the mini-sub. ''They will also have a good look around to see if they can detect any signs of life,'' he said.
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.
Moscow initially refused Western offers of aid. The navy's announcement that the crew was almost certainly dead was likely to be seen as an attempt by some Russian officials to show that the Western squads could do nothing.
''We think that the British submersible will not be able to latch on, since it will be using the same methods the Russian capsules used,'' Klebanov said in Murmansk.
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. The escape hatch they were trying to reach at the rear of the submarine is badly damaged, and repeated efforts to dock have failed.
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.
But it's unclear what triggered the explosion. Russian officials have cited either a collision or an internal problem.
A probable scenario was that a torpedo in the Kursk's forward compartment blew up, setting off a much bigger explosion. U.S. and Norwegian authorities detected two explosions in the area last Saturday at the time the Kursk was lost. There have been no reports of other vessels in the area with which the Kursk might have collided.
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.