Bonding at a Burning Oil Platform

KHMELEVKA, Kaliningrad Region -- Spewing automatic weapons fire, a speedboat races under an oil platform, triggering explosions, injuring workers, touching off an oil spill -- and provoking a spectacular multinational response.

It could have been staged for a Hollywood action movie, but the terror, rescue and ecological catastrophe scene off the coast of the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad on Wednesday was a NATO-Russia friendship operation.

The joint exercise featured a helicopter lowering a rescue boat and four men who headed to the flaming platform. A Russian amphibious firefighting airplane evacuated those playing the role of the injured. The same aircraft landed again to take on tons of water, then flew over the platform to douse the flames in just two passes.

Officials from both sides praised the drill as a demonstration of how Russia and NATO could work together for common interests despite the Western alliance's expansion in 1999 and this year to include former Soviet republics and satellite states.

"It shows that expansion, although it has caused some noises with a number of Russian politicians, has not been a setback for NATO-Russian relations," said Rolf Welberts, director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow, who watched the events from a nearby ship.

Such exercises are useful "not only to build confidence among all the participants but to improve our ability to provide real practical help when needed," said Stephen Orosz, NATO's deputy assistant secretary-general for civil emergency planning and exercises.

"Rescuers of the world are just one big family. Whenever someone from this family needs help, others from this family come and help," Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said. "It is not just cooperation between generals. It is cooperation between all levels of rescuers."

Shoigu sounded one sour note on a day that otherwise had much of a festive atmosphere. Asked by a Lithuanian journalist to comment on what, if anything, had gone wrong, Shoigu criticized new restrictions imposed by Vilnius on Russian aircraft since Lithuania and six other countries joined NATO in March.

Russia flew nine rescue planes to Kaliningrad for the exercise, but Lithuania allowed no more than one at a time into its airspace, Shoigu said.

"Because of the new rules that are now in place, it was much more difficult for us to cross Lithuanian airspace than to fly to Baghdad, for instance," he said.

In addition to the maneuvers at the oil platform about three kilometers off the coast, other drills took place on shore. The scenario was that a terrorist group had been located on land. Russian special forces parachuted to engage them. Russian firefighters dressed in special protective gear also demonstrated equipment that would be used on shore to fight a burning oil slick.

"This exercise is very important both practically and politically," said Major General Ryszard Grosset, Poland's deputy civil defense chief. "This sea is our common sea, and we're demonstrating here that we can cooperate successfully to prevent possible disasters."

The exercise, dubbed "Rescuers Without Borders," was organized under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Council, established at a Rome summit two years ago to promote cooperation among former Cold War enemies.

About 1,000 Russian emergency workers and military personnel joined the drill, along with nearly 100 personnel from Lithuania and Poland. In addition, representatives of 19 other countries were present to watch and participate in follow-up discussions and planning.

Michael Brown, U.S. undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response in the Department of Homeland Security, said he was particularly impressed by the Russian Be-200 amphibious firefighting plane, which can carry 13 tons of water at a time, picking it up from a lake or ocean at the rate of 1 ton per second. Citing wildfires around Los Angeles last year, Brown said that "it's very important that we try to develop new technologies like that in our country so we can more effectively fight fires."

Brown added that he now has direct contact with Shoigu and other key Russian emergency officials.

Times Staff Writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.