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Kursk salvage mission hits new snag
( 2001-09-06 10:48 ) (7 )

Russia's navy admitted Wednesday that a saw being used to slice off the bow of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk has malfunctioned in the latest in a spate of problems that threaten to delay the salvage operation until next year.

Vladimir Navrotsky, the top spokesman for Russia's Northern Fleet, told AFP that one of the cables operating the unique underwater saw tore apart only hours after it was launched Tuesday evening, grinding recovery work to a halt.

"Yesterday, work was stopped because of a new problem with the saw," Navrotsky said, adding that British deep-sea divers were trying to fix the problem.

"I do not rule out that it will take us three or four days to slice off the bow, and not the two days that were originally planned."

A spokesperson for the Dutch salvage company Mammoet-Smit meanwhile told the Dutch news agency ANP that the sawing operation was due to restart late Wednesday.

The spokesperson added that the "Giant 4" barge, which is to help refloat the submarine, is expected in the Barents Sea next week.

The delicate work got under way Tuesday a day after initial problems with the giant saw, needed to cut through two thick layers of the reinforced metal, had been reportedly resolved.

A company spokesman had said earlier 25 percent of the work had been completed.

According to the preliminary schedule drafted over the summer, the dangerous bow, where the Kursk's torpedoes and cruise missiles were stored, was to have been removed by August 7.

The whole operation was to have been completed by September 21, although some navy officials now concede that it could drag on into early October.

Russia is racing against time in the mission, hoping to tug the 20,000-tonne Kursk into Kola peninsula docks before fierce Arctic storms whip up the Barents Sea, paralyzing the operation.

Besides being technologically unprecedented, the salvage mission is also politically sensitive for the Kremlin and emotionally traumatizing for much of Russia.

Accused of being callous when the Kursk drama unfolded in August 2000, President Vladimir Putin pledged to raise the vessel by the end of 2001 despite warnings that the operation was launched too late.

In emotional scenes, Putin last year vowed before the crew's grieving families to recover all 118 seamen who died on board and give them a proper burial.

The operation however has been clouded in secrecy, prompting some military analysts to suggest the Kursk was in fact being raised because Russia does not want NATO navies to inspect the craft.

The Kursk sank following a series of still unexplained explosions, with its most modern Granit rockets on board.

Some military analysts have said that Russia wants to keep the guidance systems used by those rockets secret from NATO states and is recovering the Kursk as a result.

It would take hundreds of millions of dollars and many years to develop a new system should NATO states crack the code of how the Granit works.

The site where the Kursk sank has been heavily protected by the Russian navy, with some military analysts reporting that the Moscow navy has planted deep-sea mines in the region to make sure that NATO submarines stay away.

Meanwhile Valery Dorogin, an outspoken member of a government commission on the Kursk accident, said Wednesday that deep-sea divers had managed in secret to recover the most sensitive documents and enciphering equipment from the crippled craft last autumn.

Deep-sea divers spent several weeks inspecting the Kursk after the accident, officially in a bid to exhume bodies -- of which 12 were brought to shore.

In fact, Dorogin said, the divers were desperately trying to recover the most secret equipment that went down with Russia's most modern nuclear submarine.

Navy officials say they will only be able to determine what caused the fatal blasts after raising the bow in an operation tentatively scheduled for next year. 



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