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Wednesday, 18 October, 2000, 10:25 GMT 11:25 UK
Kremlin attacked over Kursk recovery
The Kursk has lain on the seabed since August
Russian divers are preparing to bring up the bodies of the Kursk submarine crew in a hazardous operation that has again provoked bitter criticism of the Kremlin.

What are they rescuing - sailors' bodies or military secrets?

Passer-by in Murmansk
President Vladimir Putin pledged to retrieve the bodies in an emotional meeting with relatives in August, but many have since urged him not to rush the operation.

A BBC correspondent in Murmansk, the headquarters of Russia's northern fleet, says that even there it is hard to find anyone who favours an early recovery operation.

Russian leaders came under a deluge of popular criticism at the time of the disaster for its handling of the rescue, and many people are still suspicious about their motives.

Bad weather

"They need to make their minds up. What are they rescuing - sailors' bodies or military secrets?" said one passer-by on the streets of Murmansk.

Kursk crew
The operation to reach possible survivors took days
"I don't think it's worth doing anything. What for? They're beyond help now. That's what I believe," said another.

The Kursk nuclear submarine sank with 118 men aboard on 12 August after apparently suffering a huge onboard explosion.

Correspondents say President Putin's slow response to the tragedy caused a crisis of confidence in his leadership.

Many of them have suspicions that there are some other reasons for this operation now

Radio Murmansk news editor
Reports from one military enlistment centre, in the city of Tula near Moscow, say that conscripts and their parents are now refusing submarine assignments.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Ilya Klebanov, said on Wednesday that the mission to retrieve the bodies would start next week, after a few days' delay because of bad weather.

Appeal to Putin

The announcement comes despite an open letter to President Putin last month in which relatives of the dead begged him not to risk more lives by acting too hurriedly.

"Let the hull of the submarine become a temporary military cemetery, which is a centuries-old, respected sailors' tradition, until preparations have been made for raising the vessel with all the crew," they wrote.

Anna Troyan, whose husband transfered to the Kursk 12 days before it sank, is one of many grieving relatives who want the bodies to stay where they now lie, at the bottom of the Barents Sea.

Mrs Troyan and others still go out by boat to the scene of the tragedy, where an island of wreaths still bobs on the water, to weep and remember their loves ones.

"I don't want to get a coffin that I'm not allowed to open, that could be filled with stones and rags. I would rather just come down here and throw flowers into the water," she said.

Risk of further deaths

Experts say that the operation to retrieve the bodies at the start of the polar winter is fraught with risk to the divers, a Russian team acting with British and Norwegian assistance.

They'll have to feel their way and make sure their suits aren't torn on jagged metal

Professional diver Sula Vitala
Sula Vitala, who has been a professional diver for most of his 60 years, cautioned against hurrying matters.

"They should wait till next year, and bring the boat up with what's inside - if indeed anything remains after such an explosion.

"It will be dark in there: 30cm-50cm visibility only, especially if there was a fire. They'll have to feel their way and make sure their suits aren't torn on jagged metal," he said.

When the Kursk disappeared, Radio Murmansk was among the first to respond to the public's need for information, setting up a hotline to counter a wall of official silence and disinformation.

Relative of Kursk crew member
Many relatives want the crew to rest where they lie
The station's news editor and presenter, Natalya Chesnakova, says that once again people in Murmansk feel that they're not being given the full facts.

"I'm afraid people have the same feelings that there is something that our authorities - the Moscow authorities - don't want to tell us. Many of them have suspicions that there are some other reasons for this operation now - not just getting bodies from the submarine, but some other reasons."

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24 Aug 00 | Europe
The Kursk disaster: Day by day
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