Russian prosecutors said yesterday they have opened a criminal investigation into the accident that left seven crew trapped in a mini-submarine in the Pacific Ocean for three days.
An initial investigation has established violations by officials responsible for preparing and overseeing the AS-28 mini-submarine's mission, said Roman Kolbanov, the Pacific Fleet's deputy military prosecutor.
One of the submariners, Captain Valery Lepetyukha, revealed yesterday that the submarine had been sent to investigate an underwater surveillance antenna that had got entangled in fishing nets.
Russia had to appeal for outside help to rescue the submarine which was 180m below the surface off Russia's remote Pacific coast.
Russian ships were able to latch onto the sub and its entanglements with a trawling apparatus, but succeeded in moving it only about 100m. A Scorpio remote-controlled underwater vehicle sent by Britain then spent six hours cutting away the cables that had snarled the Russian vessel and its propeller.
After breaking free, the vessel floated up to the surface, and the seven men climbed out onto the deck, ending a more than three-day ordeal in frigid temperatures and with dwindling supplies of water and oxygen.
Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Viktor Fyodorov said yesterday that the Russian navy will buy two Scorpios. The vehicles cost anywhere from US$1 million to US$5 million each, depending on the configuration.
Moscow newspapers have criticized the navy as failing to learn the lessons of the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster, in which all 118 crew members died, by not investing sufficiently to upgrade its rescue capabilities and by not reporting the accident until the day after it happened.
Kolbanov, the prosecutor, said experts from the Russian general staff, navy command, Defense Ministry, Federal Security Service and Finance Ministry would be involved in the investigation, as well as the company that built the mini-sub.
After the seven men were rescued, British Royal Navy Commander Ian Riches, who directed the Scorpio's work, said Russian officials had told him that only six hours of oxygen remained on the mini-sub.
However, Lepetyukha insisted yesterday that oxygen supplies could have lasted another 36 hours, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported. He also denied that crew members had been writing farewell messages to their loved ones, as some Russian media have reported.
The newspaper Kommersant yesterday reported that the navy may have initially refused the mini-sub's request to employ the trawler to free the vessel because of concern of damaging the antenna assembly.
Citing an unidentified participant in a meeting of the crew and officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, the newspaper said one sailor complained to the officials that the crew was told "that can't be done ... there was an order from Moscow to protect the antenna."