UK cuts military search and rescue teams

November 28, 2011 - 12:15 PM
Britain Ship Sinks

FILE - In this July 4, 2011 file photo, Britain's Prince William heads toward a Sea King helicopter for a training exercise, in Dalvay-by-the-Sea, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Prince William joined a frantic rescue mission Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011, after a cargo ship sank in the Irish Sea, leaving several crew members still missing. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson, file)

LONDON (AP) — Britain's military will stop providing a helicopter search and rescue service, the government said Monday, meaning daring operations like the one by Prince William and his Royal Air Force colleagues that saved two sailors this weekend will in the future be carried out by civilians.

Transport Secretary Justine Greening confirmed that contracts will be awarded to civilian rescue crews once the air force retires its fleet of Sea King helicopters by March 2016.

The British government has announced deep cuts to the defense ministry's annual 37 billion-pound ($58 billion) defense budget, as part of the country's national austerity program.

Currently, search and rescue duties are handled by both civilian crews and specialist military units — including William's team based at RAF Valley, on the island of Anglesey, off north Wales.

"We are confident that ... a fully civilian service will be able to maintain the same standards in the future," Greening said in a statement.

William, an RAF search and rescue co-pilot who is known professionally as Flight Lt. William Wales, was deployed in gale force winds early on Sunday after the Swanland cargo ship sank in the Irish Sea.

Second officer Roman Savin, 26, and Able Seaman Vitaly Karpenko, 48, were rescued by William's helicopter, but authorities confirmed Chief Officer Leonid Safonov, 50, was found dead.

Searches on Monday failed to find five others who remain missing from the Cook Islands-registered ship, which was carrying thousands of tons of limestone.

"Sadly we still have not been able to locate the missing seafarers. We will carry out one final search at low water today," Holyhead Coastguard watch manager Ray Carson said.

The eight-strong crew were Russian, and the country's ambassador to Britain has written to William to offer praise for the rescue efforts.

"We know that you took an active part in the rescue and the two seamen were saved thanks to your selfless effort under the bad weather conditions," Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko told William in a letter.

"Let me express to you and your colleagues my deepest gratitude for saving the lives of the Russian citizens," he wrote.

Rescue helicopters from RAF Valley and from Dublin coastguard base in Ireland were initially sent to the scene, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of the Llyn peninsula in north Wales.

Members of the ship's crew had issued a mayday call after the vessel's hull cracked as it was battered by stormy conditions.