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Efforts on to recover bodies

By Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW, AUG. 22. Russia will observe a day of mourning for the crew of the sunken nuclear submarine, Kursk, as international deep-sea experts left the site of the wreck after divers found there were no survivors.

The loss of the Kursk submarine, which sank in the northern Barents Sea on August 12 after a powerful explosion on board, is the greatest naval catastrophe in Russia's history in which 118 sailors have died.

The President, Mr. Vladimir Putin, decreed Wednesday a day of national mourning, ordering the national flag to be flown at half-mast throughout the country and asking television and radio stations to drop entertainment programmes.

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Putin arrived in Severomorsk, home base of the Northern Fleet to which the Kursk belonged, to meet the mourning families of the crew who gathered there and to pay last respects to the dead sailors. Earlier in the day he ordered the setting up of a government commission to take care of the bereaved relatives, including 55 orphaned children.

The bodies of the crew remain trapped inside the crippled submarine lying on seabed at the depth of 108 metres. The nine- day rescue operation ended on Monday after Norwegian divers opened the submarine's rear escape hatch and found that the whole of the vessel was flooded. On Tuesday, the Norwegian and British rescue teams left the site of the catastrophe and headed home.

``With the equipment and divers they have, there is no possibility to do any more than they have done,'' Norwegian Vice Adm. Einar Skorgen told the Russian RTR television. Russian officials said the Norwegian side agreed to help recover the bodies of the crew after adequate preparations. They said it would take 10 days to train divers for the job and about one month to examine the submarine.

On Tuesday, a top government official for the first time admitted that authorities knew the crew had died as early as August 14, two days after the accident. ``We had no right to make the announcement at that time, we had to open the submarine hatch and make sure nobody had survived,'' said the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Ilya Klebanov, who heads a government commission

investigating the sinking of the Kursk.

The Russian military continues to insist the submarine sank as a result of a collision with a foreign vessel, which caused the torpedoes on board the Kursk to explode ripping its nose open.

``It must have been a collision with some object, most likely an underwater one,'' said the Defence Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, in a television interview, hinting the object could have been a foreign submarine.

Russian news agency cited a Norwegian report that a U.S. submarine that monitored the Russian naval games in the Barents Sea was docked in one of the Norwegian ports. Washington denied any of its ships was involved.

Other Oscar-class submarines like the Kursk will remain berthed until the cause of the accident is determined, the Russian defence chief said.

Military experts said the exact causes of the disaster could only be established after the submarine had been raised to the surface or dragged to more shallow waters. The Rubin ship designers said it would taken them two weeks to draw up a plan to lift the Kursk, which together with the water inside currently weighs 26,000 tons.

Seeks forgiveness

AP, Reuters report:

The commander of the northern fleet, Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, in a highly unusual public display of contrition, asked for forgiveness.

``Forgive me for not saving your sailors,'' Adm. Popov said yesterday, removing his military hat before the camera. Looking directly into the camera, he was wide-eyed and teary.

Meanwhile, a fellow sailor has said the 118 Russian sailors who died in the Kursk submarine did their job because they were proud to serve their country, though many were paid less than $ 50 dollars a month.

Captain-Lt. Sergei Ladanov, an officer on a nearly identical Oscar-II class submarine, the Smolensk, was called out last week to advise Russian rescuers on the lay-out of the Kursk.

``It was obvious that they were dead from the start,'' said Mr. Ladanov (25), adding that he knew some of the crew. ``It was just clear - that's what we felt.'' ``(But) this is my duty, it's my fate, I chose it and I'll carry on going out to sea, whatever the risks,'' he said. He had just arrived in the northern Russian naval port of Severomorsk from one of the rescue ships out in the Barents Sea.

For doing his duty, he said, he is paid $ 50 a month and lives in a one-room, 19 square metre (yard) flat on a small submarine base called Zapadnaya Litsa. A top submarine commander could expect to receive $ 250 a month, he said.

After he joined the northern fleet three years ago, his wife left him because she did not like living in Zapadnaya Litsa - well into the Arctic circle, where the sun never rises during subzero midwinter months. And should he ever leave the navy, he will lose his flat.

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