Xi Jinping orders 'all-out' effort to rescue Antarctic exploration ship

President urges 101 people on board Chinese icebreaker to stay calm after it became trapped following rescue from icebound Russian vessel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 5:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 6:23am

President Xi Jinping has ordered "all-out efforts" to save 101 people aboard an icebreaker trapped after going to the rescue of a Russian ship stuck in heavy floes in Antarctica.

The Xue Long, or the Snow Dragon, was the nation's pride on Thursday after its helicopter ferried dozens of stranded passengers from Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy to safety aboard an Australian icebreaker .

But the ship itself became trapped and could not break free the next day.

Xi yesterday praised the Chinese expedition team aboard Xue Long and said they had accomplished the rescue mission under tremendous risks and brought honour to China, according to Xinhua.

The president asked those on board to "remain calm" and ordered "all-out" efforts to help them out of danger.

Xinhua last night said the State Oceanic Administration had set up a special task force to lead and co-ordinate the new rescue mission.

Those trapped on the Xue Long include crew members, scientists and journalists.

The ship was locked in a heavy floe area, some 21 kilometres from the nearest ice-free waters, Xinhua said. It quoted journalists aboard the vessel of saying that the ship had enough supplies to last until April.

The ship's passage has been blocked by a drifting, one kilometre-long iceberg since Friday. Its captain Wang Jiangzhong told Xinhua that they would only try to break out after the iceberg moved away.

But tidal conditions are extremely complex and the positions of the iceberg and ice floes are changing rapidly.

State broadcaster CCTV said last night that a strong cyclone is possible and it could help the vessel break free as early as next week. It said crew members were planning a table tennis game to lift their mood.

The setback, however, would not dampen China's ambitions in Antarctic exploration.

China announced soon after the incident that the country will build a new icebreaker that is "far more technologically advanced and bigger than the current one".

Qu Tanzhou, head of the Antarctic office under the State Oceanic Administration, told China Radio International yesterday that the new icebreaker would enter service in two or three years and would be "one of the most advanced in the world".

Xue Long, built in Ukraine in 1993, was a cargo ship until it was converted to a polar research ship. It is China's only icebreaking vessel.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority yesterday also confirmed there was no immediate danger to people on board the Chinese vessel, adding in a statement that Akademik Shokalskiy and Xue Long could assist each other if necessary.

It also said Aurora Australis, the Australian vessel carrying the rescued passengers, had continued to make its passage to the Casey base to renew supplies before returning to Australia.

Additional reporting by AFP