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  Russians Suspicious of US in Sub

By Robert Burns
AP Military Writer
Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2000; 1:50 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON –– Russia's initial suspicion of a sinister American role in the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk is rooted in distrust of U.S. motives – distrust so firmly held that Russian officials still press for answers in the sinking of a Soviet sub in 1968.

Russian officials long have suspected that the Soviet sub K-129 was struck by an American submarine, the USS Swordfish. But the U.S. Navy says the Soviet vessel, armed with nuclear missiles and with a crew of 98, suffered a catastrophic internal explosion when it sank in the central Pacific on March 11, 1968.

As recently as last fall, Russian government officials complained that Washington was covering up its involvement. One accused the Americans of acting like a "criminal that had been caught and now claimed that guilt must be proved," according to the notes of a U.S. participant in a November 1999 meeting on the topic.

The case is so sensitive that at least two CIA directors – Robert Gates and James Woolsey – met with Boris Yeltsin while he was the Russian president to review what the American spy agency knew about the sub loss.

In the case of the Kursk, which sank in the Barents Sea on Aug. 12 during a Russian naval exercise, the Pentagon insists that no American ships were involved, although U.S. officials have acknowledged that two U.S. submarines were close enough to record the sound of enormous explosions aboard the Kursk.

While presenting no hard evidence, the Russian military command has insisted from the start that the most likely reason for the loss of the Kursk and its 118-man crew was a collision with an American or British submarine that survived and escaped. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev went on television to air the theory, and Russian officers claimed fragments of a foreign submarine were found near the Kursk.

"The military still sees the West as the Cold War enemy," said Alexander Pikayev, a military analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Noting the lingering suspicions, Defense Secretary William Cohen felt compelled Monday to say "there were no American ships involved" in the tragedy.

That is what the Pentagon and the CIA have told the Russians repeatedly regarding the 1968 submarine sinking in the Pacific, but Moscow continues to insist that Washington is hiding its involvement.

When the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POWs and missing servicemen met last November, a senior Russian representative said more than 90 families of the lost crew of the sunken sub – known in Russia as the K-129 but classified by NATO as a Golf II – are waiting for information on their loved ones' remains.

The Russians believe not only that a U.S. submarine – the USS Swordfish, based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – collided with the K-129, causing it to sink, but also that secret U.S. salvage operations in 1968 and 1974 removed remains of crew members and highly sensitive equipment that went down with the sub – possibly including nuclear warheads.

Russian suspicions about the Swordfish are based on records indicating it underwent nighttime repair of a bent periscope at Yokosuka, Japan, on March 17 – six days after the K-129 sank. The U.S. explanation is that the Swordfish collided with an ice pack and was 2,000 miles away from the Russian sub when it sank.

Moscow has requested the Swordfish's deck logs, to trace its movements, but the Pentagon has refused. The Swordfish apparently had a hand in some highly sensitive operations before and after the K-129 incident. Navy records show that in 1965 it was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation for "special operations" conducted in the western Pacific in the fall of 1963 and 1964 and the spring and summer of 1965.

The United States denies any involvement in the K-129 sinking, although it has acknowledged that it salvaged some parts of the sunken sub. U.S. officials provided the Russian government with a videotape of a burial-at-sea ceremony for six crew members whose remains were recovered when the CIA-financed Glomar Explorer salvage ship recovered parts of the submarine in 1974.

Norman Kass, the executive director of the U.S. side of the joint commission, said Tuesday that all recovered personal effects of the Russian crew have already been provided, and nothing more can be done.

"We're at an impasse," he said.

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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