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Russia: 'Kursk' Nuclear Sub Begins Slow Journey Back To Land

The battered hull of the Russian nuclear submarine "Kursk" was successfully raised to the surface of the Barents Sea yesterday in one of the largest salvage operations in naval history. Secured to a barge and traveling under Northern Fleet escort, the "Kursk" is now making the slow trip back to the city of Roslyakovo, outside of Murmansk. Investigators hope the salvaged remains will provide clues as to what caused the explosion that sank the sub last year, killing all 118 crew members on board.

Moscow, 9 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The wreck of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine today continued its slow journey back to land, where it is scheduled to be placed in dry dock in the northern Russian town of Roslyakovo, near Murmansk.

The docking marks the completion of a massive international salvage operation that may provide investigators with clues as to what caused the explosion last year (12 August 2000) that sent the "Kursk" to the bottom of the Barents Sea, killing all 118 crew members on board.

The "Kursk" is due to arrive tomorrow in Roslyakovo. Once it is placed in dry dock, investigators will remove the remains of any crew members and begin the search for clues behind the fatal blast.

Northern Fleet spokesman Vladimir Navrotsky, speaking today on Russian television, described the "Kursk's" approach toward shore:

"Tomorrow, around 8 a.m., the vessels will approach the Kola Bay. They will be at the entrance to the bay. Around 10 or 11 o'clock, they will go through the bay. They will be on the North Seas shipping lane. And by around 2 p.m., the Giant-4 barge system [carrying the 'Kursk'] should be moved to the Belokamenkaya shipping lane, and it will be placed on four points, on four specially prepared barrels."

Navrotsky also said the submarine would begin to be lifted into dry dock after high tide on 13 October.

The return of the submarine, which is carrying two 190-megawatt nuclear reactors, raised fears in the Murmansk area of a possible radiation leak. But Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who is overseeing the $65 million operation, told reporters there is no threat of a leak. He said, "If there had been even one-in-a-million odds that something would happen, we would never have carried out the operation in Roslyakovo."

The remains of the "Kursk" -- minus its first torpedo compartment, which was separated by a remote-controlled saw and left on the Barents seabed -- were lifted to the surface yesterday. In a complex operation that took more than 15 hours, a Dutch-led salvage team raised the sub on 26 steel cables and secured it beneath a barge.

Tugboats -- escorted by Northern Fleet ships -- then began the slow trip across 180 kilometers of sea back to Roslyakovo. Despite calm conditions, the procession is moving at just five kilometers an hour.

The 18,000-ton "Kursk" is the largest submarine to be lifted in such an operation.

Igor Spasski, the head of Rubin naval design bureau, which was responsible for the design of the "Kursk," said in an interview with Russian television that the salvage operation was extremely difficult. But he said the salvage team -- led by the Dutch Mammoet-Smit International consortium -- had achieved the best possible results:

"[The salvage operation] was really well done. Further salvage operations, to help [the raising of the 'Kursk'], were not necessary. At the beginning we raised the back part [of the sub], then the frontal part. And [the entire operation] had successful results."

Deputy Prime Minister Klebanov says the cause of the accident has yet to be determined. He says an explosion of torpedoes in the ship's front end may have caused the "Kursk" to sink:

"As far as the reasons for the sub sinking, we have not yet been able to find an answer, even though we receive new results from different analyses from institutes here [in Murmansk] every day. At the moment, we think that the main reason was the explosion of the torpedoes. But up until now, we have not been able to understand what caused the torpedoes to explode."

The salvage operation recovered all of the "Kursk" but the first torpedo compartment, which was heavily damaged in the explosions that sank the sub. Some experts say that it is precisely this section that holds the answer to what caused the explosions, and that the expensive, four-month-long salvage operation will shed little light on the fatal accident.

Officials say they hope to recover any remaining bodies of crew members as soon as possible. But they said they expect to find only a third of the crew, at most. The majority of the "Kursk's" crew was believed to be in the front of the sub where the explosion took place.