The US on Sunday sent its heavy ice-cutter to rescue over 120 crew on board the Russian and Chinese ships trapped in the Antarctic, with ice up to four metres thick surrounding them.

The US Coast Guard announced yesterday that it would send the Polar Star after the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) requested it to assist the Russian-flagged Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese-flagged Xue Long that remain ice-bound in the Antarctic.

Russia and China have also requested assistance from the US.

“The US Coast Guard stands ready to respond to Australia’s request,” said Vice Admiral Paul F Zukunft, Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander.

“Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels. We are pleased to learn the passengers of the Akademik Shokalskiy have been transported safely off the vessel,” he said in a statement.

Polar Star, which is Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar ice-breaker, left its homeport of Seattle in early December on one of its primary missions, Operation Deep Freeze.

The 399 feet-long Polar Star will cut short its planned stop in Sydney to support the AMSA’s request for assistance.

In a statement, Coast Guard Pacific Area Command Center said it received the request on January 2 from AMSA after it evaluated the situation and determined there is sufficient concern that the vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice.

According to authorities, the 101 crew aboard the Chinese ship and 22 aboard the Russian ship were well provisioned and in no immediate danger.

The maximum speed of the ship is 18 knots and is able to continuously break six feet of ice at three knots besides being able to break 21 feet of ice through backing and ramming.

It is specifically designed for open-water icebreaking with a reinforced hull and special icebreaking bow.

AMSA has been coordinating rescue operations since the Akademik Shokalskiy became beset with ice on December 24.

The Chinese vessel Xue Long, which went to its aid, itself became trapped after using its helicopter to ferry dozens of passengers to the safety of an Australian ship. The Chinese ship is surrounded by ice of up to four metres thick and is stuck 21 kilometres from open water.

For over 50 years, Coast Guard icebreaker crews have been deployed in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze.

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