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THE WORLD

Faulty Torpedo Sank Kursk, Russia Agrees

Inquiry: Officials rule out a foreign attack or WWII mine as cause of August 2000 accident.

June 20, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Nearly two years after the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea, a government commission has established that a faulty torpedo, and not a foreign spy submarine or a World War II mine, brought down the pride of the Russian navy.

Industry, Science and Technology Minister Ilya I. Klebanov, head of the commission investigating the August 2000 accident, acknowledged Wednesday that a torpedo on board the Kursk accidentally blew up. That explosion triggered a gigantic conflagration of other torpedoes on board, which mangled the bow of the sub, causing it to sink rapidly. All 118 aboard died.

Klebanov said the commission would announce its complete findings this month. "We have ruled out the collision version. We have also ruled out the World War II mine version. There is only one version left," Klebanov said.

Just days after the navy lifted a 5-ton bow fragment from the floor of the Barents Sea, he said the commission had recommended that the navy not investigate further.

The Kursk disaster was the first test of President Vladimir V. Putin's leadership, and he was severely criticized for only belatedly cutting short a summer break to fly to the scene that August.

The storm of criticism helped shape Putin's presidency--he has never repeated the error, and his popularity is high.

The Kursk also exposed the navy's reflexive secrecy as officials hedged or lied about the disaster in the days after the sub sank.

Criticizing the two-year delay in a finding, Adm. Eduard Baltin, former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, said it was clear from the outset that a faulty torpedo was to blame.

He said, however, that it still isn't clear what made the torpedo blow up.

"Submarine accidents such as this are much harder to investigate than any aircraft accident," he said. "Torpedoes do not explode by themselves."

Some crewmen survived the initial blast, and 23 of them gathered in the stern section of the vessel. At least two of them left notes, but Russian officials say they could not have survived more than about eight hours.

After meeting relatives of the victims in the weeks after the sinking, Putin pledged to raise the submarine and give the crew a proper burial.

The salvage operation cost $130 million. Experts had identified 115 of the crew members by late March.

In the public shock wave that followed the Kursk's sinking, naval officials insisted that a foreign submarine lurking in the Barents Sea during Russian naval exercises was the most probable cause.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has always rejected Russia's claim that a Western submarine could have hit the Kursk and sunk it.

In February, after last fall's successful operation to raise the bulk of the Kursk, officials announced that the military was abandoning the type of torpedoes used on the sub.

The Russian naval chief, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, acknowledged in February that the navy had placed unfounded trust in the torpedoes, which are propelled by volatile hydrogen peroxide.

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