News24

Russia mourns Kursk

2000-08-23 17:22

Murmansk - Flags were lowered and mourning services were held across Russia on Wednesday to mourn the 118 sailors who died in the submarine Kursk.

President Vladimir Putin, who declared it a day of mourning, returned to Moscow after facing the wrath of sailors' families at a marathon overnight meeting in the northern naval base of Vidyayevo, where the Kursk began its final mission.

Criticised for what many saw as a casual approach to the disaster and a failure to prod generals into action during the week of uncertainty over whether the trapped submarine crew were still alive, Putin struggled at times to make himself heard.

"When will we get them back, dead or alive? Answer as the president," shouted a woman in the crowd, referring to the bodies of the sailors, in clips on state-owned RTR television.

"I will answer (as soon) as I know it myself," said Putin, dressed in black and looking sombre. The rest of his remarks were lost due to the noise of the crowd and the bad quality of the tape.

Russian media allowed into Vidyayevo said the six-hour meeting -- an unprecedented gathering of ordinary Russians with their president in a crowded room -- ended long after midnight.

On Wednesday, church services were held, some television stations changed their schedules to air classical music or war films, and a minute's silence was observed on some chat shows discussing the Kursk.

Russia's most popular website, anekdot.ru, where jokes are usually posted, shut for the day and presented a black screen.

Promises to support relatives

The government has promised to look after the relatives and Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying families would get average compensation worth $7 000, amounting to more than 10 years' pay.

Matviyenko, heading a special government commission, said military insurance would pay out a total of 23 million roubles ($830 000). The sum includes 120 average monthly wages for each man plus a one-off payment equal to 25 monthly wages.

Some of the families may sue Putin, the government and defence ministry for "moral damage" brought about by the disaster, Veronika Marchenko of the Mothers' Right fund was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Putin had been expected to fly to the area of the Barents Sea where the Kursk sank on August 12, after still-unexplained blasts, to lay a wreath on the sea to honour the dead.

But ORT television showed wives of dead sailors late on Tuesday urging Putin not to do this.

They said such events should be postponed until the bodies were recovered, perhaps fearing any ceremony could suggest officials had given up hope even of recovering the bodies.

Putin apparently agreed and mourning ceremonies at Vidyayevo, including a planned church service, were cancelled.

"It is impossible to believe it is all over," Interfax quoted Putin as telling the crowd of up to 600 relatives and local residents. "The grief is immeasurable, no words can console. My heart is aching but yours much more so."

Some Russian newspapers continued to criticise the way officials had handled the crisis, the focus shifting from Putin to the military and government. "The military are obsessed with one desire -- to shift the responsibility from their own shoulders," Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily newspaper said.

On Tuesday, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexiy II urged people not to apportion blame without good reasons and said he was impressed with Putin's sentiments during the crisis.

Environmental fears

Ecologists have expressed fears that the Kursk's reactors present a threat to the environment but Norwegian experts said they had found no evidence of radiation leaks.

The Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority said it had tested water from inside and outside the vessel and also checked background radiation at stations in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

But Rod Macrae, international communications director of Greenpeace, told Reuters television there was a ton and a half of highly enriched uranium in each of the reactors.

"That being the case, the potential for the melting of the core of these will increase," he said.

Russia has said its main concern is to recover the bodies, but its navy lacks deep-sea diving equipment.

The Norwegian firm whose divers opened the Kursk's hatch on Monday, only to find it flooded, has agreed to study a salvage operation or the recovery of the bodies, both fraught with risk.

The Kursk's designers said they were working on ways to lift the 17 000 ton vessel -- lying 108m down and much heavier flooded -- and move it to shallower waters. Experts said such a complex operation could take months.

Reuters