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Monday October 23, 2000

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Rough weather curtails sub recovery

By The Associated Press

MURMANSK, Russia - With the seas around them increasingly rough, Russian and Norwegian divers yesterday pierced the inner hull of the sunken Kursk nuclear submarine in a laborious, precarious bid to recover the bodies of 118 sailors inside.

Winds above the Arctic site mounted throughout the day and were expected to pick up overnight, threatening to curtail the operation.

Working nonstop in teams since Friday, the divers carved into the outer hull Saturday, the first step in the planned recovery operation. The divers hope to cut seven holes through both hulls of the submarine to retrieve bodies or body parts from their tomb in the Barents Sea.

After some struggle overnight, the divers sliced through the sturdy rubber layer between the hulls, said Capt. Vladimir Navrotsky, chief spokesman for the Russian Navy's northern fleet.

Later yesterday, they cut a four-inch hole in the steel of the inner hull leading to compartment No. 8, in the rear of the submarine, Navrotsky said. Throughout the day they gradually enlarged the hole a few millimeters at a time.

Russian navy spokesman Vadim Serga said cutting into the two-inch inner hull could be completed by tomorrow.

The divers also were dismantling and removing pipes, wires and other equipment in the six-foot space between the hulls that could tear diving suits.

The operation was focused outside the submarine's rear end, less damaged than the front, which suffered explosions and hit the sea floor first in the Aug. 12 accident.

Top Russian military officials have warned that safety concerns - including fears about the Kursk's two nuclear reactors, and threats to divers from jagged metal debris inside the wreck - might force the Navy to call off the complex underwater work 330 feet below the surface.

Radiation levels at the site, monitored by Norwegian experts, were reported normal yesterday.

Navrotsky said the weather was steadily getting worse, but that the divers would continue working unless the winds reached light gale force.

Russian officials have not determined what caused the accident that destroyed the Kursk during naval exercises in which all 118 seamen on board died. Possible causes include an internal malfunction or a collision with a Western submarine or World War II-era mine.