Russia prepares to raise sunken Volga boat

MOSCOW - Russia on Sunday was preparing to raise a sunken riverboat from the muddy bottom of the Volga River in an operation involving dozens of divers and two huge cranes, a week after it sank killing at least 114.

The overcrowded cruise ship went down last Sunday in a storm in the country's worst shipping disaster in recent memory, which the Kremlin blamed on safety breaches.

On Saturday authorities kicked off an elaborate, multi-stage operation to lift the boat from the bottom of the river in the central region of Tatarstan.

The actual raising of the 56-year-old boat, which is now lying on its right side, is expected to take place later Sunday.

"An operation to put the vessel on an even keel has been under way since 7am (0300 GMT)," Andrei Rodygin, spokesman for the emergencies ministry, told AFP.

After that divers at the scene would be ready to search the riverbed near the boat in the hope of finding the bodies of 15 people who are still listed as missing.

Authorities have so far found the bodies of 114 people including 28 children.

The divers were working in a low-visibility environment and the boat was increasingly getting sucked into the riverbed silt, officials said.

"A lot of silt has accumulated there," Alexander Chachin, who is in charge of emergency diving services at the scene, said on television.

Once pulled to the surface, the Bulgaria will then be hauled to a dock.

Forty nine divers and two huge floating cranes are involved in the lifting operation alone, while more than 800 personnel and 23 river vessels have been deployed in the overall search and rescue effort.

Operations to raise sunken vessels are considered difficult and expensive.

Emergencies ministry officials could not say on Sunday how much the salvage operation would cost.

Transport Minister Igor Levitin has expressed hope that after the Bulgaria was raised officials would obtain additional clues that could help the investigation.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin earlier this week made a surprise visit to the city of Kazan to which the boat was sailing when it sank.

Putin laid roses at the river port and blamed greed and safety violations for the accident.

The Bulgaria was built in then Czechoslovakia in 1955 and its sinking prompted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to call for a river transport safety review.

The vessel was heavily overcrowded and at least 25 people on board had not bought tickets or did not appear on any registration lists.

The Bulgaria sank three weeks after a Tupolev 134 plane crashed on a highway in bad weather in the northern region of Karelia, killing 47 people and drawing fresh attention to the dire state of Russia's infrastructure.

Putin was president in August 2000 when the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea claiming the lives of 118 seamen. The wreck of the submarine was raised from the seabed a year later.