Russians plant flag on Arctic seabed to stake energy claim


RUSSIA:Russian explorers dived deep below the North Pole in a submersible yesterday and planted their national flag on the seabed to stake a symbolic claim to the energy riches of the Arctic.

A mechanical arm dropped a specially made, rust-proof titanium flag painted with the Russian tricolour onto the Arctic seabed at a depth of 4,261m (13,980ft).

"It was so lovely down there," Itar-Tass news agency quoted expedition leader Artur Chilingarov as saying as he emerged from one of two submersibles that made the dive.

"If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag," said Mr Chilingarov (67), who is also a leading pro-Kremlin member of parliament.

Russia wants to extend right up to the North Pole the territory it controls in the Arctic, which is believed to hold vast reserves of untapped oil and natural gas, resources which are expected to become more accessible as climate change melts the ice.

But Canada has poured scorn on Russia's ambitions, saying the expedition was nothing more than a show.

"This isn't the fifteenth century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'," Canadian foreign minister Peter MacKay told CTV television.

Under international law, the five states with territory inside the Arctic Circle - Canada, Norway, Russia, the United States and Denmark (via its control of Greenland) - have a 320km (200m) economic zone around the north of their coastline.

Russia is claiming a larger slice, extending as far as the pole, because, Moscow says, the Arctic seabed and Siberia are linked by one continental shelf.

"Then Russia can give foundation to its claim to more than a million square kilometres of the oceanic shelf," said a newsreader for Russia's state news channel Vesti-24, which made the expedition its top news story.

Russian media have said the move could raise tension with the United States in a battle to control Arctic gas.

A Tass reporter on board the mission support ship said crew members cheered as Mr Chilingarov climbed out of the submersible and was handed a pair of slippers.

"This may sound grandiloquent but for me this is like placing a flag on the moon, this is really a massive scientific achievement," Sergei Balyasnikov, spokesman for Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Institute, told Reuters.

Russia says the mission is intended to show that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,800km underwater mountain range that extends under the Arctic to near the pole, is a geological extension of Russian territory.

Russia denies that it is involved in a land-grab.

"The aim of this expedition is not to stake Russia's claim but to show that our shelf reaches to the North Pole," foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Manila, where he is attending a regional security conference.

The Mir-1 submersible reached the seabed at 12.08am Moscow time and returned to the surface exactly six hours later.

A second Russian submersible, manned by Swedish businessman Frederik Paulsen and Australian adventurer Mike McDowell, reached the seabed 27 minutes later. It reached a depth of 4,302m.

Soviet and US nuclear submarines have often travelled under the polar icecap, but until yesterday not one had reached the seabed under the pole.