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45 Bodies Removed from <i>Kursk</i>

45 bodies have been recovered from the wreckage of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, since it was brought into drydock a week ago.

The number of bodies recovered so far is higher than officials had hoped. They had previously thought the force of the explosions that sank the ship was so powerful that only 20 or 30 bodies would be found.

Medical examiners have identified 25 of the bodies, and seven have been returned to their families.

The forensic experts describe the work as both physically and psychologically exhausting, but they vow to keep at it around the clock, until all the bodies are recovered.

Experts also were able to remove two of the Kursk's 22 cruise missiles that appear to have survived the accident intact.

All 118 people on board were lost when the Kursk exploded and sank in August 2000. Russian officials have three theories of what caused the disaster: an internal explosion or explosions, a collision with another vessel, or that the submarine struck a World War II-era mine.

Most foreign experts believe it was caused by two explosions that were set off when one of the ship's torpedoes malfunctioned. But the man who heads the investigation, Chief Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov, insists that did not happen.

Mr. Ustinov told Russian television the torpedo manufacturers are positive their weapons could not have been responsible. He said ballistics experts are examining the outside of the hull to see if the Kursk could have collided with an object.

Investigators may get a better idea of what caused the sinking next year, when the severely damaged forward compartments of the submarine are recovered a major undertaking planned to begin next summer.

In addition to retrieving the bodies and removing the 20 cruise missiles that remain on board, nuclear fuel must be extracted from the ship's two reactors. Experts say they are satisfied that the reactors are intact, but other subsystems may have been damaged. If so, that would present other problems. Once they are solved, the hull will be stripped down completely, a process expected to take at least six months.