Russia mourns victims of rig disaster as search goes on

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Russia's northern Murmansk region marked a day of mourning Tuesday for victims of the weekend sinking of a drilling rig in icy seas, as rescuers hunting for 39 missing crewmen found only empty liferafts.

Questions were mounting about the decision to tow the rig with 67 people on board across the Okhotsk Sea in far eastern Russia during a severe storm, and survivors described scenes of chaos during the rescue operation.

Rescuers were continuing with the search for the missing for the third day after Sunday's sinking but hopes of finding anyone alive were fading after a ship spotted empty liferafts from the rig.

Fourteen survivors were picked up on Sunday after the Kolskaya capsized and sank within 20 minutes in seas over 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) deep as it was being towed from the Kamchatka peninsula towards the island of Sakhalin.

It was Russia's worst disaster on water since July when 122 people drowned in a pleasure boat accident.

Eleven bodies have so far been recovered from the Okhotsk Sea, while another three have been sighted, officials said, taking the official death toll to 14.

"This is not a cruise liner able to transport nearly 70 people through the entire Okhotsk Sea," said one of the rescued crewmen, Ivan Mishinyov.

"He knew it could not be done," Natalia Dmitriyeva, the daughter of another crew member, said of the towing operation in remarks broadcast on television.

Others also took issue with the rescue operation, saying the victims had been expected to help themselves out of the water.

"They thought we would be clambering up, but we were already too weak," said the rig's chief Alexander Kovalenko. "Everyone cried: 'Lifeboats, lifeboats, rafts.'

"I do not know why captains of the rescue vessels did not drop their rafts," a visibly shaken Kovalenko said in remarks broadcast on television.

Rescuers have so far refused to declare the remaining 39 missing dead, stressing they needed to find the rest of the crew, alive or dead.

"Hope springs eternal," Alexander Ivelsky, spokesman for the emergencies ministry based in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, told AFP.

The Murmansk region -- home to more than 30 members of the crew -- was in mourning Tuesday, with flags lowered and the cancellation of entertainment events, governor Dmitry Dmitrienko said.

"Today we are grieving and mourning all the victims of the terrible catastrophe in the Okhotsk Sea," Dmitriyenko said in a video statement.

"We don't yet know the exact number of the dead and missing, but we already know that quite a large number of residents of the Murmansk region perished."

A container ship spotted a partially damaged lifeboat and a liferaft full of water early Tuesday, but neither carried any survivors or bodies, the federal sea and river transport agency said.

Officials said Sunday that four liferafts had been found with no one on board, with crew members in wetsuits able to survive freezing temperatures for only around six hours.

President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a probe but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who plans to win back his old Kremlin job in a March poll, has not so far made a public statement on the tragedy.

Investigators said Monday that they were probing breaches of safety regulations, a frequent cause of accidents in the country.

The rig's owner Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR) defended the professionalism of the rig's managers, saying towing at sea was a "complicated operation".

Officials said the Kolskaya, which was engaged in exploration for Gazflot, a subsidiary of gas giant Gazprom, had experienced technical problems before the accident and had been forced to pump water out of one of its air tanks due to a leak.

© 2011 AFP

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