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Putin Suspends Admiral Over Sinking of Sub - 2003-09-11

Russian President Vladimir Putin has suspended the head of Russia's Northern Fleet as a result of the sinking last month of a decommissioned nuclear submarine. The action comes amid criticism over the handling of the accident by high-level officials.

President Putin signed an order temporarily suspending Admiral Gennady Suchkov, pending the outcome of an investigation into the sinking of the K-159 submarine on August 30, while it was being towed to a scrap yard.

Russian Navy Commander in Chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov said the sinking could have been prevented if "everyone involved from the fleet command to the officer in charge of towing" had followed regulations.

Admiral Kuroyedov said all those involved in towing the submarine had failed to be sure the 40-year-old vessel could be safely towed in the first place.

The K-159 sank after it apparently sprang a leak and then broke loose from giant pontoons during a storm in the Barents Sea off Russia's Arctic coast.

Since the accident, other officials, as well as the Russian press, have asked why a crew of 10 was on board the submarine, which was decommissioned in 1989. Only one of the 10 survived the accident. Two were found dead in the sea, while the other seven went down with the sub.

Some Navy officials say the men were on board in order to plug a potential leak. Since the sinking, other towing operations have been suspended.

The K-159 is just one of about 200 decommissioned Russian submarines that need to be dismantled and scrapped. Most have nuclear reactors on board, something which has long caused alarm among environmentalists and Russia's Scandinavian neighbors, especially Norway.

Russian Navy officials maintain that the two reactors on the K-159 had long been inactive, and pose no danger.

But environmental groups say there is a risk that nuclear fuel could leak from the sub, a risk that increases the longer the vessel remains on the sea bottom.

The Navy says it plans to raise the sub next summer, in the same way the Kursk nuclear submarine was raised after it sank three years ago.

All 118 men on board the Kursk died after a faulty torpedo exploded during naval exercises in Russia's worst naval disaster.