MOSCOW - The Russian Navy chief said Monday that the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine might have been caused by a practice torpedo with unstable fuel, and added that he had ordered the weapon taken off duty.
Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov stopped short of saying that the Kursk's sinking during naval maneuvers in August 2000 was caused by a flaw in the torpedo. Kuroyedov said investigators were still considering a collision with another vessel or a World War II mine as possible reasons of the disaster, which killed all 118 men aboard and stunned the country.
Yet Russia's Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who flanked Kuroyedov at a news conference in the northern port of Murmansk to announce results of months of examination of the wrecked Kursk, said investigators had found no evidence of another vessel's presence near the Kursk in the Barents Sea at the time, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies reported.
Russian officials have long said that the explosion of a practice torpedo triggered the larger blast that roared through the massive vessel and destroyed it. But they have yet to determine what prompted the initial explosion, despite extensive investigation since the Kursk was raised to the surface last fall.
Immediately after the disaster, Russian navy admirals claimed that the explosions could have been triggered by a collision with a Western submarine shadowing the Kursk.
Both the United States and Britain, which had their submarines in the Barents Sea, have denied involvement, and most independent specialists dismissed the collision theory and pointed at a torpedo malfunction as the most plausible cause.
While stopping short of blaming the torpedo for the disaster, Kuroyedov admitted that the navy had "placed unfounded trust" in the weapon propelled by highly volatile hydrogen peroxide, which in case of a leak could have caused a powerful explosion of the kind the Kursk suffered.
"It's highly unstable and its contact with certain metals may cause unpredictable consequences," Kuroyedov said.
Kuroyedov mentioned a leak of hydrogen peroxide that caused the 1955 sinking of the British submarine HMS Sidon, in which 13 men died. The accident prompted Britain and other nations to stop using the chemical, but the Soviet and later Russian navy has used such torpedoes since 1957.
Russian officials said the Kursk's practice torpedo had an experimental battery, but was otherwise standard. They denied the claim by some Kursk sailors' relatives and Russian media that the submarine crew had previously reported trouble with the torpedo to their superiors.
Ustinov told President Vladimir Putin last fall that investigation had revealed that the naval maneuvers during which the Kursk sank were poorly organized. Last December, Putin fired Northern Fleet chief Adm. Vyacheslav Popov and demoted other admirals, though naval officials insisted then that the changes weren't linked to the Kursk.
Ustinov said Monday that the probe had revealed "serious violations by both Northern Fleet chiefs and the Kursk crew." The Kursk had gone to sea with both its emergency antenna and buoy incapacitated.
In another development Monday, Putin demoted Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who was in charge of the Kursk's rescue operation and probe, to industry and technology minister. Klebanov oversaw industry in his previous capacity, and the Kremlin said the move was intended to help him concentrate on this sector.
The Kursk's fore section, which is thought to contain additional clues to the disaster, was sawed off and left on the sea bottom when the rest was lifted. The navy is planning to raise some of the bow's fragments this summer.
Investigators have retrieved remains of 94 of the Kursk's 118 crewmen, 91 of which have been identified. Ustinov said remains of the Kursk skipper, Capt. Gennady Lyachin, could be among fragments of bodies which haven't yet been identified.