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Gas Leak Caused Submarine Accident in Moscow

An accident on a Russian nuclear submarine that killed 20 people was caused by a gas leak

An accident on a Russian nuclear submarine that killed 20 people was caused by a gas leak, it emerged yesterday, striking a fresh blow to Moscow's image as a resurgent military power. Forensic medical experts said initial tests showed the fatalities aboard the submarine in the Sea of Japan on Saturday were the result of Freon gas spewing into the craft after a malfunction in its fire extinguishing system.

It was Russia's worst naval accident since torpedo explosions sank another nuclear-powered submarine, the Kursk, in the Barents Sea in 2000, killing all 118 crew aboard.

The Nerpa, an Akula II-class attack submarine, was undergoing sea trials in the Pacific Ocean off Vladivostok when its fire-fighting system activated accidentally. Seventeen of the men killed were part of a shipyard delivery crew, while the remaining three were officers. Another 21 people suffering from "minor poisoning" were taken ashore by a destroyer and were out of danger last night, doctors said.

Navy officials said the craft had been repaired and returned to port. "The reactor is operating normally. Radiation levels are normal," a spokesman, Igor Dygalo, said. Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, said he had ordered a "full and meticulous" investigation into the disaster.

Freon is a light gas used in extinguishing systems because it removes oxygen from the air, making a fire go out. It is toxic in large quantities and areas are normally evacuated and closed off when the gas is released. But a navy source told the RIA Novosti agency that the submarine was submerged when the system triggered, and the victims were unable to leave compartments that were battened down. "The investigation must establish why not everyone used a portable breathing apparatus," he said, adding that the leak was gradual and may have gone unnoticed.

There were 208 people abroad, of whom 81 were crew. The rest were workers who were fitting the craft. Sergei Darkin, governor of the Primorye region, ordered officials to give families of the dead and injured a 100,000 rouble (£2,360) compensation payment.

The accident will embarrass the Kremlin, which has repeatedly promised to tighten safety checks after a number of marine accidents in recent years. Expansion of naval power is a key plank in Moscow's attempts to increase its military reach across the globe. A taskforce from Russia's northern fleet, led by the Pyotr Veliky missile cruiser, is due to visit Venezuela this month in what analysts say is a calculated snub to the US.

Recently the Kremlin reportedly discussed an offer from Muammar Gadafy to open a naval base on Libya's coast, giving Russia a permanent presence in the Mediterranean.

Despite the desire to project its might, much of Russia's hardware is outdated and accident prone. In 2005, its Pacific fleet called in British experts to help rescue the crew of a mini sub that spent three days underwater trapped in fishing nets. Two years earlier, 11 people died when a Russian submarine that was being taken out of service sank in the Barents Sea.