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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kursk Work Approaches Next Stage

Divers working on the sunken Kursk submarine began piercing the last of 26 holes in the vessel's hull Tuesday, as a barge carrying equipment for the next phase of the salvage effort neared the disaster site, officials said.

For several weeks, the international team working in the Barents Sea has been cutting holes that will be used to attach steel cables to the vessel to hoist it to the surface.

Meanwhile, the Carrier barge, bearing equipment needed to separate the submarine's first compartment from the rest of the vessel, was making its way from the Norwegian port of Kirkenes and was expected to arrive at the Kursk site Wednesday, navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said in a statement.

The first compartment — mangled by the explosion that sank the Kursk last August, killing all 118 crewmen — will be left behind when the Kursk is raised. Russian officials say it could contain unexploded torpedoes.

Once the Carrier arrives, preparations for severing the fore section are expected to take about a week and the cutting should take two days, Vyacheslav Zakharov, spokesman for the Dutch company Mammoet, said in an interview posted on the official Kursk web site.

Zakharov said the navy had ruled out the possibility of an explosion in the first compartment during the cutting phase.

Foul weather has caused delays in the operation recently, but officials maintain they are sticking to the original schedule, according to which the Kursk should be lifted Sept. 15 and then towed to harbor.

In an interview that appeared Monday on Time.com, retired Vice Admiral Yevgeny Chernov, who spent 33 years working on nuclear submarines, said the rescue operation was based on "hasty decisions" and called it the work of "incompetent conmen" who want to cover up the cause of the accident.

"They can't even have their equipment moved to the place on time. But the weather in the area will get prohibitive within a couple of weeks. … I can only suspect that they never intended to raise the Kursk at all," Chernov was quoted as saying.