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Nuclear Submarine Sinks, 9 Men Lost

A nuclear submarine being towed to a scrapyard sank in a gale in the Barents Sea on Saturday, killing nine of the 10 crew aboard in an accident that raised concerns of environmental damage and further dented the navy's prestige.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said towing procedures had been violated and noted that the K-159 submarine went to the bottom with its conning tower open.

The exact circumstances of the sinking remained unclear Sunday. The submarine went down about 3 nautical miles (5.5 kilometers) northwest of Kildin Island off the Kola Peninsula, where Russia abuts Norway and Finland. That is the same general area where the Kursk nuclear submarine sank almost exactly three years ago after being torn apart by two explosions while on maneuvers, killing all 118 aboard.

Interfax, citing unidentified navy officials, said a second derelict submarine was being towed in the area Saturday and its presence apparently confused rescuers. That submarine reached port safely, Interfax said. NTV television quoted a navy source as saying the K-159 crew had been told to abandon ship about 90 minutes before the sinking, but that a rescue helicopter mistakenly went to the other submarine.

The K-159 sank about 4 a.m. Saturday after four pontoons attached for the towing operation were ripped of the sub during a battering storm. It was en route to a scrapping facility in Polyarnoye, 350 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. Rescue ships rushed to the site and arrived about 90 minutes after the sinking.

Navy deputy chief Admiral Viktor Kravchenko said one sailor was rescued and the bodies of two others were pulled out of the 10-degree Celsius waters.

Russia has decommissioned about 189 nuclear-powered submarines over the past 15 years, but officials say 126 of those still are at docks with nuclear fuel in their reactors, creating international concern about leaks and the possibility of nuclear materials being obtained by other nations or terrorists.

The K-159 entered service in 1963. A November-class submarine, it was intended for attacking enemy ships with conventional or low-yield nuclear torpedoes. "It was a workhorse of the Cold War," Kurdin said.

(The Moscow Times 01.ix.03)

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