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Icebreakers on way to stricken science vessel

Three vessels are making a mercy dash to free a Russian research ship trapped in thick Antarctic sea ice since Christmas Eve. Snow storms and strong winds have held up the rescue mission.

The Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy was nearing rescue on Friday (27.12.2013), after becoming trapped four days ago. Harsh winds from a snowstorm pushed sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place.

The vessel, with 48 mainly Australian passengers and a crew of 20, has been on a research expedition to Antarctica.

The ship is not in danger of sinking or breaking up and the 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board have ample supplies to last until they are rescued.

Maritime authorities received the MV Akademik Shokalskiy’s distress signal on Wednesday and sent three icebreakers to help free the vessel. By Friday afternoon, China's Snow Dragon had made it to the perimeter of the ice surrounding the ship, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

The Snow Dragon still faces the dangerous task of getting through the thick pack ice to the stricken research vessel.

Whether the icebreaker will attempt to cut through to the ship or will wait for the other two vessels en route to the area remains unclear.

The Australian Antarctic Division’s Aurora Australis, a re-supply ship, could take passengers and crew should they be air-lifted from the vessel. The French ship L’Astrolabe is also making its way toward the area.

On tenterhooks

The Snow Dragon was hoping to reach the ship by Friday evening, but changing weather conditions and the thickness of the ice could slow its progress, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the rescue.

Expedition leader Chris Turney said it could take the Snow Dragon until Saturday to break through.

"We're all just on tenterhooks at the moment, waiting to find out" how long it will take, Turney told the Associated Press news agency by satellite phone. "Morale is really good."

The team on board the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on November 28, was reenacting Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's century-old voyage to Antarctica when it became wedged in sea ice. The scientific team plan to continue their expedition after they are freed, Turney said.

Passengers and crew have had to battle blizzard conditions, with winds up to 70 kilometers per hour (40 miles per hour), but the weather had calmed considerably by Friday, Turney said.

"The blizzard we had yesterday was quite extraordinary - it's not nice when you can feel the ship shaking."

Despite the disruption to the voyage, the scientists have continued with their research while they wait to be freed, counting birds in the area and drilling through the ice surrounding the ship to photograph sea life.

bk/jlw (AP, AFP, dpa)

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