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14 Sailors Dead After Fire On A Russian Submarine


The Russian Defense Ministry says 14 sailors died yesterday in a fire aboard a deep-sea vessel. The Russian government is not saying much more. This is the latest in a string of accidents involving Russian submarines. And it comes as the worst of them. The sinking of the Kursk, with more than a hundred people on board, gets renewed attention. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow on how the Kremlin is responding to this latest disaster.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Russian state television led with the story of the stricken submarine citing a terse statement by the Russian Defense Ministry.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Fourteen submariners died of smoke inhalation, the statement said, when a fire broke out in their deep-sea vessel while it was surveying the seabed in Russian coastal waters. The ministry said the fire had been extinguished and the vessel recovered. It's now in Severomorsk, the main base for Russia's Northern Fleet on the Arctic Ocean. The ministry didn't give any names nor did it say how many crew members were on board. It didn't even give the name or type of vessel involved. Monday's accident evoked memories of the sinking of the Kursk in the year 2000 when an inexperienced President Vladimir Putin had just taken office and was criticized for his slow response to the disaster. Just last week, a French Belgian film on the Kursk hit Russian movie theaters. Alexander Golts, a defense analyst in Moscow, says the official reaction this time was a little faster but still inadequate.

ALEXANDER GOLTS: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: He says the Russian authorities still haven't learned how to deal with these kinds of situations - though at least they didn't wait four or five days to report the accident to the public. In the years since the sinking of the Kursk, there've been a number of other deadly incidents involving the Russian navy, including one in 2008 aboard the submarine Nerpa in the Pacific Ocean that cost the lives of 20 sailors. Russian authorities are still jumpy about such accidents. A local Severomorsk news site was the first to carry the news of an explosion and a fire on a submarine, but the editor was reportedly told to delete it. Later today, Russian media were all over the story. Some outlets citing military sources reported that the vessel was a secret nuclear-powered submersible that can operate at thousands of feet deeper than regular submarines.

BILL HAMBLET: It's essentially a spy sub, which can cut cables, which can map the sea bottom, which can find things in the deep sea.

KIM: Bill Hamblet is a retired U.S. Navy captain who served as a naval attache in the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

HAMBLET: The Russians have this deep undersea research directorate that's actually sort of a separate navy.

KIM: He says that in the event of a conflict, the Russian navy could cut undersea communications and interfere with NATO's attempts to track Russian submarines. The Russian Defense Ministry said the vessel involved in Monday's accident was used for deep-sea scientific research. But President Putin suggested it was a special submarine during a meeting with his defense minister that was broadcast on state TV.



KIM: Putin said it was not what he called a usual vessel. According to preliminary information, he said, seven of the 14 crew who died were high-ranking naval officers. During the Kursk tragedy, Putin was accused of callousness.


PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: This time, he reached out to the victims' families, expressing his deepest condolences and telling his defense minister to do everything to support them. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.