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Inclement Conditions Delay Salvage of Kursk Submarine

By Robyn Dixon

Gales in the Barents Sea forced divers in the Kursk nuclear submarine salvage operation to stop work Sunday, in the latest in a series of interruptions that have raised doubts about whether the venture will manage to raise the vessel before winter.

In a sign of the bubbling tensions over the situation, top Russian naval officials were at odds over the weekend on the target date to raise the Kursk.

Sunday’s bad weather also delayed the departure of two vessels crucial to the operation: a barge with equipment to cut off the bow section, and one of two pontoons to float the Kursk into dry dock near Murmansk in northern Russia.

A Russian navy official conceded for the first time Saturday that the submarine is unlikely to be raised until at least Sept. 24, nine days later than the target date.

In an interview with RTR television, Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of the Northern Fleet and head of the salvage operation, said that the lifting operation might take place as late as Sept. 29.

Underscoring the problems the $130 million operation faces, Motsak conceded that the weather will worsen in September. But he said the Kursk should be delivered to dry dock by early October.

He was contradicted by naval press spokesman Dmitri Burmistrov, who denied any delay.

“It was planned to raise the Kursk in the middle of September, and we are still on schedule,” Burmistrov said. “We’re not responsible for what Motsak chooses to say.”

Unfavorable weather conditions hampered Russian efforts to rescue the crew after the submarine sank last August following a still-unexplained explosion; all 118 crew members perished. Similarly, the weather complicates the delicate and risky salvage operation. Bad weather means that divers cannot cut into the hull, and some of the vessels required need relatively calm seas to leave port.

Russia took on the mighty engineering feat of raising the submarine after President Vladimir V. Putin confronted the enraged relatives of the dead Kursk crew last August and promised to bring back the bodies.

He was facing intense heat for continuing a summer vacation while the navy bungled the rescue operation after the submarine went down Aug. 12.

Twelve of the 118 bodies were pulled out in October.

Several key parts of the operation have repeatedly been delayed because of problems with equipment and weather.

The drilling of 26 holes along the side of the sub was scheduled to be completed over the weekend, but four holes still had not been drilled by Sunday. Cables will be attached to the holes to raise the vessel beneath a giant 5,500-ton barge. The barge is due to leave port in Holland soon.

The damaged bow with the torpedo bay will be severed and left on the ocean floor because of fears it could tear off if raised. The navy may try to salvage it later.

Earlier this month, a naval spokesman said the removal of the bow section would begin on Aug. 18. A week later, the date was revised to Aug. 20.