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Blast at Russian sub site 'on Richter scale'

August 18, 2000 Web posted at: 5:37 p.m. EDT (2137 GMT)

OSLO, Norway -- An explosion registering on the Richter scale was recorded on Saturday near the location where the stricken Russian submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, it was revealed on Friday.

The report from a Norwegian seismic institute came as the latest attempt to reach the nuclear-powered submarine received a setback, with a Russian TV report from the scene saying both escape hatches are badly damaged.

Meanwhile, the United States has assembled a team of experts in under-sea operations to act as "consultants" to gain access to the stricken submarine.

U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen made the offer in a letter to Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who "expressed appreciation for the offer of assistance and he asked that we work through NATO channels," Cohen said Friday in a briefing at the Pentagon.

Sub's hatches damaged Though the sub's hatches are damaged, the man leading the British rescue bid said he was still "extremely hopeful" of finding survivors when the operation begins tomorrow.

Commander Alan Hoskins of the UK Royal Navy told CNN the mini-submarine LR5, which left Trondheim, Norway, on Thursday, is still on course to reach the site early on Saturday afternoon local time.

Frode Ringdal, scientific director of the Norwegian Seismic Array (NORSAR), said the first of the two explosions recorded last Saturday was the equivalent of less than 100 kg (220 pounds) of TNT, while the second was the equivalent of one or two tonnes.

Ringdal, who said the explosions were measured by seismic stations in several countries, added: The larger explosionhad a magnitude of 3.5 on the Richter scale, corresponding to about one to two tons of explosive in water. A smaller explosion with a magnitude of 1.5 was recorded from the same location two minutes, 15 seconds earlier."

NORSARs findings come after U.S. intelligence officials revealed that U.S. submarines monitoring last weeks Russian naval exercise detected a small explosion followed by a larger one on Saturday.

Russian television said rescuers successfully docked with the Kursk on Friday, but the escape hatch could not be opened because the platform around it was damaged.

The other escape hatch, at the front of the vessel, is said to have been damaged beyond repair in the accident that caused the submarine to sink.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov told reporters there was a "terrifying hole" on the starboard side of the Kursk, where around half the crew were thought to be, hinting that they probably did not have time to escape what he called a "catastrophe that developed at lightning speed."

Rescuers exhausted The Norwegian vessel DSV Seaway Eagle, in the Arctic port of Tromsoe, before leaving to join rescue efforts In an interview on Russian state television, Admiral Vyachevslav Popov, Commander of the Northern Fleet, said rescuers are exhausted and working in very difficult conditions but will not give up.

"The rescuers are too tired but they are going on because they understand their friends are deep beneath the water in the submarine," he said.

Popov also admitted that the air pressure inside the Kursk is "too high."

Video tape shot by the Russian Navy has confirmed that the front of the 505ft-long vessel was severely damaged from the bow to behind the first fins, including the area of the front escape hatch and the periscope area.

The Oscar-class sub, which sank during a naval exercise, is sitting at an angle 350ft (108 metres) below the surface. Attempts to reach it by Russian rescuers have all failed.

The international rescue effort is expected to be launched on Saturday, with the UK team saying their rescue mission could begin as soon as the extent of the damage to the rear escape hatch has been established.

British Ministry of Defence officials have seen the Russian video and say they are confident the LR5, which will carry a Russian doctor and two Russian technicians as well as its two-man crew, will be able to latch on to the sub.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cut short his holiday in the Black Sea after being criticised for remaining silent on the accident, told Russian television on Friday that rescue attempts had been given only an "extremely small chance" of saving the crew.

A Russian rescue ship hoists the mini rescue submarine above the site of the sunken Kursk The British rescuers are to be joined by a team of Norwegian divers on Sunday after the failure of the latest Russian attempt to reach the submarine. And CNN has learned that the U.S. is assembling a team of experts in undersea operations to act as "consultants" to Russian officials.

The experts, currently expected to remain at the U.S. Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, could move to Brussels, Belgium to work face to face with the Russians.

-- Martin Thompson (, August 18, 2000

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