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Kursk Missiles Hard To Retrieve

Investigators have identified 38 of the 52 bodies pulled from the mangled wreckage of the Kursk nuclear submarine, officials said Wednesday.

The delicate task of removing the submarine's 22 powerful cruise missiles is proving more difficult, said Vladimir Navrotsky, spokesman for Russia's Northern Fleet.

Eight of the Granit missiles have already been retrieved, but investigators warned that the remainder are located in a damaged area which may complicate their recovery.

"Work in that direction proceeds slowly, because the missile containers that were located closer to the bow of the vessel were somewhat damaged," Navrotsky said, according to Interfax news agency. "The deformation occurred as a result of the explosions that went off in the Kursk."

The Kursk's entire 118-person crew died when powerful explosions sent the state-of-the-art submarine plunging to the Barents Sea floor during military exercises on Aug. 12, 2000.

Since the Kursk was raised from the seabed in a $65-million salvage effort, 52 bodies have been recovered. Another 12 bodies were retrieved from the Kursk by divers last fall.

The Northern Fleet said 18 coffins containing the sailors' remains have already been flown to their hometowns. Early Wednesday, another plane carrying remains departed for Yoshkar-Ola, a city in central Russia.

Russia's Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who is charge of the investigation of the Kursk accident, said Tuesday that forensic experts were working to retrieve several more bodies they had spotted in the Kursks' third to fifth compartments.

The Russian Navy initially expected to find the remains of 30 or 40 sailors, but officials said some had apparently managed to move from the fore compartments, which were hit hardest by the blasts, to the stern in the brief interval between the explosions. That could explain why searchers found more bodies than initially expected.

Officials agree that the first explosion, which sent the Kursk to the sea bottom, was caused by a practice torpedo. But opinions differ on what triggered that explosion. Many Western officials believe it was caused by an internal malfunction, but Russian investigators have not yet discounted the possibility of a collision with a World War II mine or a Western submarine.

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