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Russian navy chiefs axed, experts see Kursk link
By Jon Boyle

MOSCOW, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Russia demoted three top navy commanders and sacked another eight admirals on Saturday in a clearout that some experts said was punishment for the Kursk nuclear submarine catastrophe in which 118 crew died.

Senior military officials denied a direct link with the Kursk disaster, saying the sanctions related to "serious failures in the organisation of the military training activities of the fleet."

However, they came just hours after President Vladimir Putin received a preliminary report from Russia's top law officer into August 2000 naval exercises during which the Kursk sank.

The disaster, the worst in modern Russian naval history, saw Putin savaged for failing to end his holiday and take personal charge of the crisis.

On Saturday, a grim-faced navy chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, who is close to Putin, said three senior officers had been demoted: Northern Fleet commander Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, its chief of staff, Vice-Admiral Mikhail Motsak, and its submarine fleet commander, Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev.

Their new ranks and posts were not announced.

Interfax news agency quoted Kuroyedov as saying that eight other admirals and three senior captains had been dismissed.

A few hours earlier, Putin had told Kuroyedov, his defence minister and military chief of staff during a Kremlin meeting that it was too early to issue a definitive ruling on what caused the Kursk disaster or say who was to blame.

But he ordered measures to improve the fleet and unspecified "staffing decisions." A year ago Putin rejected as premature attempts by Kuroyedov and Popov to resign, saying they should stay until the full facts surrounding the tragedy were known.


Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who is heading a legal probe into the loss of the Kursk, attended Putin's sombre Kremlin conference after briefing the president on the findings of his initial investigation.

Ustinov said Northern Fleet investigators had uncovered "major breaches" during preparations for the naval wargames, but had not yet discovered a direct link to the disaster.

General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff, said the sanctions had "absolutely no link to the loss of the Kursk" but were the result of failings within the Northern Fleet.

Russian officials say an onboard explosion of a torpedo sank the Kursk, but what triggered the initial mishap remained a mystery. A World War Two-era mine or a collision with another submarine could have been the cause, they say.

But independent defence analyst Alexander Golts dismissed official protestations and said the link between the demotions and the Kursk disaster was clear, even if the exact chain of events had yet to be published.

The navy had failed to explain why its rescue operation began 12 hours after the blasts that sank the Kursk were picked up by a Norwegian monitoring station, he said.

"Putin had to punish these people. Military exercises were going on and all navy systems had to be ready to monitor any explosion," said Golts. "If you believe a foreign submarine caused the disaster, it shows Russia's forces were not prepared and failed to monitor these submarines."

Putin had cleverly used the prosecutor's office to justify his course of action, he added.

Putin ordered a $130 million salvage operation to retrieve the Kursk so its sailors could be buried properly. Officials said on Saturday that 62 bodies had been found aboard the hulk, which was recovered from the seabed in early October. Another 12 were recovered in a previous operation.

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