Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Rescue operation pulls scientists from ice floe

SAFE AND SOUND Twelve Russian scientists stranded after their research station sank into icy waters were flown by helicopter to the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen

AFP , MOSCOW

Russian scientists were rescued Saturday from a floating Arctic research station where they had nearly been swallowed up by ice floes earlier in the week.

"The rescue operation is a success," Artur Chilingarov, a deputy parliament speaker and former polar explorer himself, who headed the effort, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

The 12 men were unharmed. They were later flown by helicopter to the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen, some 700km from their drifting station, Russian rescue officials said.

The helicopter landed on Spitz-bergen shortly before 1530 GMT, Itar-Tass said, quoting a Russian rescue official.

The local Norwegian police head, Olav Tombre, said he had received no request for medical assistance.

The scientists would be home in time to celebrate today's International Women's Day -- an important holiday in Russia -- Chilingarov said.

The fate of the scientists has riveted Russia for days after reports that most of their floating station disappeared in a Hollywood-like scenario.

Most of the installations of Russia's North Pole-32 research station sank overnight Wednesday when the ice below it cracked, rose up swiftly in great walls and eventually disintegrated.

Chilingarov described the rescue effort as taking place under "exceptionally difficult" conditions.

Two dogs which were along on the scientific expedition were also saved, he said.

The North Pole-32 station, set up in April last year to study climate change, has traveled some 3,000km atop the ice floes since then and is currently some 700km from the North Pole in the Nansen Basin.

Station chief Vladimir Koshelyev earlier told Russian television that more than half of North Pole-32 was swallowed up by ice in only half an hour.

"All of a sudden ... a huge wall of ice appeared that kept growing and growing," he said.

"First it was three-meters high, then five, then seven and finally over 10 ... In the course of a half hour it practically swallowed up 90 percent of the station, leaving only two small houses."

For the three days since the sinking, the researchers had been huddling for shelter in the few remaining structures left on the ice while outside temperatures hovered around minus 30?C.

Two helicopters, an Mi-8 and the heavy Mi-26 cargo chopper, manned by Russian rescuers flew in at midday Saturday from Spitzbergen to the site.

The Mi-8 landed nearby and picked up the station's crew, while the heavier Mi-26 was due to pick up the station's equipment while hovering above the ice.

Yury Tsaturov, an official with Russia's Rosgidromet weather agency quoted by Interfax, warned earlier Saturday that weather conditions were "turning for the worse," after being reported as favorable -- with temperatures of minus 25?C and clear visibility.

To back up the air rescue, an atomic icebreaker Arktika was dispatched from its base in Murmansk on Friday and was expected to reach the site in five days.

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