Christmas rescue in sight for stricken Russian boat

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The crew on a Russian fishing boat stranded in icy Antarctic waters may receive a big Christmas Day present with the expected arrival of two rescue vessels, New Zealand officials said Friday.

The Sparta, with a crew of 32, was holed a week ago and heavy ice in the area has prevented nearby vessels from offering immediate assistance.

A South Korean icebreaker berthed in New Zealand set sail last Saturday night and is due to reach the Russian-flagged Sparta on Sunday afternoon, a New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre spokesman said.

The icebreaker Araon will link up on Saturday with the Sparta's sister ship Chiyo Maru No 3 and the two vessels will make their way to where the stranded boat is moored next to the Antarctic ice shelf.

"The Araon will provide further assistance with repairs to the Sparta and open an ice lane for both vessels to move from the ice," the rescue centre spokesman said.

"As the Spartas situation has now improved, the urgency phase has been downgraded from distress to alert."

The vessel sent out a distress call from its location, about 2,000 nautical miles southeast of New Zealand, after it was holed by ice and started to list.

The situation was not stabilised until the New Zealand Air Force made two mercy dashes to deliver additional pumps, fuel and patches.

The Chiyo Maru No 3 and two other nearby fishing boats all responded to calls for help, but the icy conditions were too dangerous for them to reach the Sparta.

© 2011 AFP

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