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Fri Aug 12 05:41:01 PDT 2005

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Seven people on a Russian mini-submarine trapped for nearly three days on the Pacific floor were rescued Sunday when a British remote-controlled vehicle cut away undersea cables that snarled their vessel, allowing it to surface.

The seven, whose oxygen supply had been dwindling, appeared to be in satisfactory condition when they emerged, navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said. They were examined in the clinic of a naval ship, then transferred to a larger vessel to return to the mainland.

About five hours after their rescue, six sailors were brought to a hospital on the mainland for examination, waving to relatives as they went in. The seventh was kept aboard a hospital ship for unspecified reasons.

At the edge of the gangplank leading to shore, the mini-sub's commander, Lt. Vyacheslav Milashevsky, held a long and solemn salute, then a slight smile crossed his face. Pale, but walking confidently, he told journalists he was "fine" before climbing into a van for the drive to the hospital.

His wife, Yelena, said earlier that she was overjoyed when she learned the crew had been rescued.

"My feelings danced. I was happy, I cried," she told Channel One television.

Another crewman in the van swiveled his head back and forth, gazing at the green trees and gray skies.

The red-and-white mini-sub, the AS-28, surfaced at 4:26 p.m. local time Sunday, some three days after becoming entangled in 600 feet of water Thursday. It was carrying six sailors and a representative of the company that manufactured it.

"The crew opened the hatch themselves, exited the vessel and climbed aboard a speedboat," said Rear Adm. Vladimir Pepelyayev, deputy head of the naval general staff.

"I can only thank our English colleagues for their joint work and the help they gave in order to complete this operation within the time we had available — that is, before the oxygen reserves ran out."

The United States also sent three remote-controlled underwater vehicles for the rescue, but they arrived several hours after the British vehicle and were not used.

Both countries sent rescue teams after the Russian navy made an urgent appeal for international help — unlike during the August 2000 sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk, when authorities held off asking for outside assistance for days. All 118 aboard the Kursk died.

Russian ships tried to tow the mini-sub and its entanglements to shallower water where divers could reach it but could only move it less than 100 yards in Beryozovaya Bay, about 10 miles off the Kamchatka coast.

Then, a British remote-controlled Super Scorpio cut away the cables snarling the 44-foot-long mini-sub. Once the obstructions were removed, there was a last spasm of anxiety as the submarine stayed still.

"Then after two or three minutes, it broke free and within three minutes it surfaced," Ivanov said.

The men aboard the mini-sub had waited out tense hours of uncertainty as rescuers raced to free them before their air supply ran out. They put on thermal suits to insulate them against temperatures of about 40 degrees inside the sub and were told to lie flat and breathe as lightly as possible to conserve oxygen.

To save electricity, they turned off the submarine's lights and used communications equipment only sporadically to contact the surface.

"The crew were steadfast, very professional," Pepelyayev said on Channel One television. "Their self-possession allowed them to conserve the air and wait for the rescue operation."

In an echo of the Kursk sinking, President
Vladimir Putin had made no public comment by Sunday on the mini-sub drama. Putin remained on vacation as the Kursk disaster unfolded, raising criticism that he appeared either callous or ineffectual.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who went to Kamchatka to supervise the operation, praised the help provided by Britain and the United States.

"We have seen in deeds, not in words, what the brotherhood of the sea means," he said.

Officials said the Russian submarine was participating in a combat training exercise and got snarled on an underwater antenna assembly that is part of a coastal monitoring system. The system is anchored with a weight of about 66 tons, according to news reports.

The sub's propeller initially became ensnared in a fishing net, they said.

The events and an array of confusing and contradictory statements — with wildly varying estimates of how much air the crew had left — darkly echoed the sinking of the Kursk.

Russia's cash-strapped navy apparently lacks rescue vehicles capable of operating at the depth where the sub was stranded, and officials say it was too deep for divers to reach or the crew to swim out on their own.

The submarine's problems indicated that promises by Putin to improve the navy's equipment apparently have had little effect. He was criticized for his slow response to the Kursk crisis and reluctance to accept foreign assistance.

The new crisis has been 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.

New criticism arose within hours of the mini-sub's crew being rescued. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the nationalist Rodina party in the lower house of parliament, said he would demand an assessment from the Military Prosecutor's Office of the navy's performance in the incident, the Interfax news agency reported.

Rogozin said he wanted to know why Russia has not acquired underwater vehicles similar to the ones provided by Britain and the United States and "why fishing nets and cables litter the area of naval maneuvers."

"It appears the naval command is not in control of the area of naval exercises," he said, according to Interfax.

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