Russia scrambles to raise sunken Volga boat

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Russia on Sunday was scrambling to raise a sunken riverboat from the muddy bottom of the Volga River a week after it sank killing at least 114 people.

A complex operation, involving dozens of divers and two huge cranes was underway, but the actual lifting of the Bulgaria cruise ship had not yet started as 1200 GMT, contrary to expectations.

"An operation is continuing under water," emergencies ministry spokesman Marat Rakhmatullin told AFP, refusing to say whether the 78-metre boat would be lifted by end of the day or postponed until Monday.

The overcrowded 56-year old Bulgaria boat went down last Sunday in a storm in the country's worst shipping disaster in recent memory, which the Kremlin blamed on safety breaches.

On Saturday, authorities began the operation to lift the boat -- which was lying on its right side -- from the bottom of the river in the central region of Tatarstan.

The boat must be put on an even keel before it can be raised and hauled to port.

Divers have been working in a low-visibility environment and the boat was increasingly getting sucked into the riverbed silt, officials said.

"A decision has been made to conduct an additional diving exploration," emergencies ministry spokesman Andrei Rodygin said regarding the delays.

Raising sunken vessels is considered difficult and expensive, but emergencies ministry officials could not say how much this operation would cost.

"No two salvage operations are alike. They are all unique," Rodygin said in televised remarks. "Russia has not seen such a large-scale catastrophe on the water in the past 20 years."

The divers were also expected to search the riverbed near the boat in the hope of finding the bodies of 15 people who are still listed as missing.

Authorities have so far found the bodies of 114 people including 28 children.

Forty nine divers and two huge floating cranes are involved in the lifting operation alone, while more than 800 personnel and 23 river vessels have been deployed in the overall search and rescue effort.

Transport Minister Igor Levitin has expressed hope that after the Bulgaria was raised officials would obtain additional clues that could help the investigation.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin earlier this week made a surprise visit to the city of Kazan to which the boat was sailing when it sank.

Putin laid roses at the river port and blamed greed and safety violations for the accident.

The Bulgaria was built in former Czechoslovakia in 1955 and its sinking prompted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to call for a river transport safety review.

The vessel was heavily overcrowded and at least 25 people on board had not bought tickets or did not appear on any registration lists.

The Bulgaria sank three weeks after a Tupolev-134 plane crashed on a highway in bad weather in the northern region of Karelia, killing 47 people and drawing fresh attention to the dire state of Russia's infrastructure.

Putin was president in August 2000 when the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea claiming the lives of 118 seamen. The wreck of the submarine was raised from the seabed a year later.

© 2011 AFP

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