ANTARCTICA - All 52 passengers stranded on the Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy in Antarctica for nine days were rescued by a Chinese helicopter on Thursday.
The helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, transferred the passengers to an ice floe close to Aurora Australis, an Australian Antarctic supply ship.
"I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home," Chris Turney, leader of the Russian expedition, told the Associated Press by satellite phone from the Russian vessel, which has been stuck in the ice since Christmas Eve.
He posted on Twitter that the helicopter had arrived at the Akademik Shokalskiy, saying "huge thanks to all".
The helicopter Xueying 12, or Snow Eagle 12, made six trips to pick up all the passengers and their luggage.
The passengers comprised scientists, tourists and journalists who were scheduled to follow in the footsteps of Australian Douglas Mawson and his 1911-14 expedition.
All 22 crew members will stay aboard the icebound vessel, which is not in danger.
Aurora Australis will take the passengers to the Australian island state of Tasmania, arriving by mid-January after refueling at Australia's Casey base in Antarctica.
The Russian vessel became trapped in thick pack ice about 185 km east of the French Dumont d'Urville base.
The eagerly awaited rescue came after days of failed attempts to reach the ship, with three icebreakers forced back to open waters by impenetrable ice, blinding snow, strong winds and fog.
Aurora Australis sailed to within 20 km of the trapped ship on Monday before fierce winds and snow forced it to retreat.
Snow Dragon had sight of Akademik Shokalskiy late last month, but turned back after failing to break through ice more than 3 meters thick in some places, said an official surnamed Zhao with the State Oceanic Administration's Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration.
The administration said an emergency team was formed on Saturday to contact the stranded vessel and prepare for the rescue after the Russian ship's captain sent a formal request on Dec 24 for a helicopter rescue.
This mission was announced on Tuesday, but heavy snow and winds forced it to be suspended until Thursday afternoon.
Jia Shuliang, captain of the helicopter, told Xinhua News Agency the six crew members were split into three teams, responsible for flying the helicopter and handling the operation on board Snow Dragon and at the icy landing surface.
Snow Dragon left Shanghai in early November on China's 30th Antarctic expedition. This is expected to last 155 days and involves scientific research, construction of the country's new research base and site inspection for another new station.