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The BBC's Rob Parsons
"Even when they get there it is not going to be an instant rescue"
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The BBC's Duncan Kennedy
"Sometime in the next 72 hours everyone should have an answer"
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British rescue team, Cmdr Alan Hoskins
"Ready to face whatever circumstances we find"
 real 56k

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus
"The submarine's escape hatch is a standard Soviet design"
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Thursday, 17 August, 2000, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Stricken sub 'severely damaged'
The rescue sub is loaded for the journey to the Berents Sea
UK defence officials say the crippled Russian submarine lying on the floor of the Barents Sea is so badly damaged that one of its escape hatches is unusable.

They said a "high energy explosion" had affected an area from the nose to the central fin of the vessel, which sank during military exercises on Saturday.

The Normand Pioneer's journey is expected to take until Saturday
A British rescue crew which has set off from the Norwegian port of Trondheim with a mini rescue sub will therefore concentrate on a rear escape hatch.

The LR5 mini sub has docked in the past with a Polish vessel of the same basic Soviet design, so rescuers believe there should be no problem with compatibility.

However, it remains unclear whether any of the Kursk's 118 crewmen are still alive to open the hatch from the inside.

Strong currents

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov admitted on Thursday that the situation on the Kursk was "close to catastrophic".

There have been conflicting reports about the amount of oxygen on the submarine. Earlier the Russian authorities said it would last until Friday, but now they say it could last until 25 August.

The British rescue team, and a group of Norwegian divers, will arrive on Saturday at the earliest.

So far, attempts by Russian rescue capsules to dock with the Kursk, have been frustrated by strong underwater currents and poor visibility, though the weather is improving.

The cause of the disaster is still unclear, but the UK officials, who have seen video of the Kursk lying on the seabed, said there was no doubt there had been an explosion.

A Navy spokesman said: "We can say that it was a high energy explosion because Russian submarines are very strongly built."

Kursk timeline
Saturday: Sinks in Barents Sea during exercises
Monday: Russian navy inspects stricken sub
Tuesday: Attempts to attach rescue capsule fail
Wednesday: Russians report no signs of life in the Kursk. Accept help from the West
Thursday: British and Norwegian craft readied for rescue attempt
The officials said the Kursk was lying at angle of 20 degrees - considerably less than earlier reports had suggested - but that the underwater currents were very strong.

Russian officers said on Tuesday that they had heard survivors knocking on the wall of the submarine, but later these sounds were reported to have ceased.

Commander Alan Hoskins of the UK rescue team told the BBC that his men were trying to remain optimistic about the prospects of rescuing some of the trapped Russian sailors alive.

"We hope that we will get there and still find that people have survived and we can rescue as many people as possible," he said.

Cruel coincidence

Others involved in the rescue effort have emphasised that there is no guarantee that it will succeed, even if there are survivors.

There are 118 men on board the Kursk, a flagship nuclear submarine launched in 1994, which sank without even issuing a distress call.

Russian TV graphic
A graphic from Russian TV showing the difficulty of the rescue mission
President Vladimir Putin has been sharply criticised by the Russian media because of the failure of the Russian rescue effort, and the delay in accepting offers of help from outside.

In his first comments on the crisis on Wednesday he said Russia did not need any help. Later his office said he had ordered the military to accept foreign assistance.

As the uncertainty continued, families of the trapped sailors described their anguish as a "living hell".

"The worst thing is the lack of information," said Galina, whose commander husband Viktor Belogunya is among those trapped.

The Russian military news agency AVN reported that by a "cruel coincidence" the military exercise in which the Kursk was taking part had intended to simulate the rescue of a sunken submarine.

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See also:

17 Aug 00 | Europe
What went wrong?
17 Aug 00 | Media reports
Press pressures Putin
16 Aug 00 | Europe
Life of danger beneath the waves
17 Aug 00 | Europe
What Britain's rescue sub can do
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