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US icebreaker to rescue Chinese and Russian ships in Antarctica

The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long on Thursday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

A heavy-duty U.S. icebreaker is steaming toward Antarctic waters to assist a Russian research ship trapped in ice since late last month and a Chinese vessel that got stuck offering support during a continuing drama near the South Pole, authorities said during the weekend.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, which had been on its way to Antarctica, will steer toward the Russian vessel Akademik Shokalskiy and China's Xue Long, according to statements from U.S. and Australian authorities. The U.S. Coast Guard said its action comes after requests from the Russian, Chinese and Australian governments.

The entrance of a U.S. vessel, which will need about seven more days to reach the scene, marks the latest international response to an episode that began Dec. 24 some 1,500 nautical miles south of Australia when the Russian vessel, carrying scientists, journalists and tourists, requested help.

After other failed efforts to reach the stranded Russian ship, the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long late last week dispatched its helicopter for a successful rescue of 52 of those aboard the Russian ship. But shortly afterward, Xue Long confirmed that it too was "beset by ice," according to the Australian Maritime Safety Administration, which is coordinating the international response.

Authorities say there is no imminent danger to the Russian ship's 22 crew members and the 101 sailors and scientists aboard China's Xue Long. But thick ice floe complicates prospects to maneuver the vessels, some 21 kilometers from open water.

Though somewhat shorter than the Chinese ice-cutter at 122 meters, the Polar Star is the U.S.'s only active polar-capable icebreaker and one of the world's most powerful nonnuclear ships, with an ability to crack though 1.8 meters of ice while moving or more than six meters by ramming, according to the Coast Guard.

After a three-year, $90 million upgrade, Polar Star left its home port in Seattle early last month on its first voyage to Antarctica since 2006, with plans to open a sea route for vessels to supply the U.S. base McMurdo Station.

The difficulties for ships in recent days illustrate the harsh conditions near the South Pole, a region that nevertheless is drawing growing scientific and strategic interest. The Xue Long is taking part in China's effort to build a fourth Antarctic research station, the Taishan, to augment its Great Wall, Zhongshan and Kunlun stations. China says its interest at both poles is scientific and peaceful.

Through the weekend, Chinese state media trumpeted a call by President Xi Jinping for "all-out efforts to ensure the safety of the staff" aboard the Xue Long. In live Chinese television broadcasts from the bridge, crew members emphasized that they are safe, with food and other supplies that can last months. Chinese authorities said they are working on an unspecified rescue strategy and contingencies, Xinhua news agency said.

An Australian icebreaker where the previously stranded scientists and tourists are now biding their time was asked Friday night to stand by to offer possible assistance to the Xue Long. On Saturday, authorities said it could depart because the Xue Long faces little immediate danger.

The Xue Long, which left Shanghai in early November to take part in China's 30th Antarctic scientific expedition, received a formal request on Dec. 31 from the stranded Russian ship, Akademik Shokalskiy, for helicopter assistance to remove the passengers. Previous efforts by Australian and French icebreakers to get near the Akademik Shokalskiy had failed, but after several weather-related delays, the helicopter operation was a success.

Still, the Xue Long appeared to encounter difficulty navigating shortly before its helicopter rescue began on Thursday, with reports from those aboard the Russian vessel suggesting the Chinese ship had become stuck.

Though the Australian maritime authority, which coordinates activity in the region, issued a formal denial that the Xue Long was in trouble, the authorities cited ice around the Chinese vessel as a reason to adjust the strategy for the multi-flight rescue.

Also, Xue Long Captain Wang Jianzhong said he was working continuously to ensure that the icebreaker wouldn't get trapped in the thick ice, according to a report posted Thursday on the website of China's State Oceanic Administration. The report highlighted particular concern that ice could damage the vessel's propeller and make navigation impossible.

Built in Ukraine in 1993 as an ice-strengthened cargo ship, the 167-meter-long Xue Long has been making polar research voyages for China since 1994.

Capable of cutting through 1.1 meters of ice, it was strengthened and modernized by a Shanghai shipyard in 2007 at a cost of $12.5 million, according to official reports. State-of-the-art satellite-navigation systems were installed, along with 500 square meters of laboratory space and a stronger helipad. Internet capabilities and airplane-type flush toilets were added to the 120 crew rooms.

A second Chinese icebreaker, being built in China with Finnish assistance, is to be commissioned this year. With two helipads, more laboratory space and an ability to cut through ice 1.5 meters thick, according to Xinhua, the new vessel "is expected to greatly boost the country's expedition capacities in polar and oceanic regions."

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