Antarctic rescue of Akademik Shokalskiy ship under way

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Addis Ababa: 2 January 2014 (WIC) - An operation is under way in Antarctica to rescue passengers from the ice-bound research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy.

A helicopter from a Chinese ship set down nearby, bringing in a crew to assess the landing situation.

The aircraft left but then returned to begin ferrying the first passengers out to an Australian ice-breaker.

The Shokalskiy has been trapped since Christmas Eve. Its 22 crew are expected to remain on board once the 52 scientists and tourists have left.

The Shokalskiy was trapped by thick sheets of ice driven by strong winds, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart - the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania.

The vessel is being used by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition to follow the route explorer Douglas Mawson travelled a century ago.

'Thanks everyone!'

"The Chinese helicopter has arrived at the Shokalskiy. It's 100% we're off! A huge thanks to all," expedition leader Chris Turney tweeted.

Mr Turney's post showed a video of a red helicopter touching down on a site that had been marked out by the Akademik's crew.

Members of the helicopter crew checked the site and the aircraft took off again.

Three hours later, Mr Turney tweeted: "The first of the helicopters to take us home. Thanks everyone!"

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority's (Amsa) Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which is overseeing the operation, had earlier said it was unlikely the rescue would go ahead on Thursday as hoped because of the sea-ice conditions.

But it later reported: "Amsa has been advised that the first passengers have boarded the helicopter."

The rescue involves ferrying groups of passengers using a helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long.

The passengers are being taken to an ice floe next to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis.

A small boat will then ferry them to the Aurora Australis.

The airlift could take about five hours, as each journey takes about 45 minutes and five flights could be needed.

The passengers are not expected back in Tasmania until mid-January.

Mr Turney told Associated Press by satellite telephone: "I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home."

Several attempts to break through to the ship by sea - by the Xue Long, Aurora Australis and French-flagged L'Astrolabe - failed because of the thickness of the ice.

Despite being trapped, the scientists have continued their experiments, measuring temperature and salinity through cracks in the surrounding ice.

One of the aims is to track how quickly the Antarctic's sea ice is disappearing.

The ship has plenty of stocks and has never been in dang. (BBC)

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