At least 20 sailors and shipyard workers have died following a fire on a Russian nuclear-powered submarine which was undergoing sea trials. A further 21 were injured when a fire extinguishing system in the bow of the vessel failed, and they have been ferried ashore by support vessels.
The submarine has been ordered to suspend trials and return immediately to port in Russia's far-eastern Primorye territory.
The name and class of the vessel, and its location when fire broke out, have not been released. But it was assisted by the Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs,which is normally based at Vladivostok, Russia's main Far Eastern naval port on the Sea of Japan.
The fire broke out in the nose of the vessel and its nuclear reactor, situated in the stern, was not affected by the fire, said Russian Pacific Fleet spokesman Captain Igor Dygalo. There were no radiation leaks, he added.
"I declare with full responsibility that the reactor compartment on the nuclear-powered submarine is working normally and the radiation background is normal," he said.Of the 208 people on board when the fire broke out, 81 were servicemen.
The Admiral Tributs took some of the injured back to port.
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was last night being kept abreast of developments, and Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Kolmakov and Navy Commander-in- Chief Vladimir Vysotsky were flying to the scene.
Russia's worst submarine disaster was the sinking of the Kursk,which went down in the Barents Sea in August 2000with the deaths of all 118 people aboard. The submarine, which was the most sophisticated nuclear-powered in the Russian fleet, was swept by a fierce fire after one of its torpedoes exploded. Temperatures would have reached 8,000C. Looking at the twisted wreckage which had been raised from the sea bed, Russian Prosecutor- General Vladimir Ustinov described what happened in the affected compartments as "hell".
The submarine was found 108 metres down the day after losing contact with Russia's Northern Fleet Command, and survivors were heard knocking on the hull. Three days later, unofficial reports claimed the knocking had ceased. Ten days after the explosion, Norwegian divers found the hull flooded and the Russian Navy declared the crew dead.
Efforts to rescue survivors would have been futile, Mr Ustinov said. They had died of carbon monoxide poisoning or would have drowned as water seeped into the damaged hull, filling the vessel within hours of the explosion.
Relatives of the dead crewmen protested after Mr Ustinov's two-year inquiry found that no-one was directly to blame for the accident, and claimed the authorities had tried to silence them.
The inquiry ruled that a fuel leak in a faulty torpedo caused the disaster, but that because no-one could have forseen the accident, naval commanders could not be prosecuted for the loss of the ship or the death of its crew.