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Rescue of stranded Antarctic ship stalls after Chinese icebreaker fails

SYDNEY -- Passengers onboard a ship stuck in ice off Antarctica were Saturday placing their hopes in the Australian icebreaker hurrying to their remote location, after a Chinese icebreaker failed to free them.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is coordinating the rescue of the Russian passenger ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, said the icebreaker came within six-and-a-half nautical miles of the ship but had to stop.

“The Chinese vessel unfortunately encountered some heavy ice that it's not capable of breaking through,” AMSA spokeswoman Andrea Hayward-Maher told AFP. “The rescue ... unfortunately has stalled.”

The Russian ship, with 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board, has been trapped in ice about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont d'Urville since Tuesday.

The Chinese vessel came tantalizingly close to the stranded ship but it was forced to turn back to open sea once it realized it could not break through.

Passengers are now waiting for the arrival, expected late Sunday, of Australia's Antarctic resupply ship Aurora Australis which has the highest icebreaking rating of the three vessels originally asked to respond.

It is not yet clear whether the Aurora Australis will be able to go any further than the Chinese vessel, the Snow Dragon. A third ship, the French vessel L'Astrolabe, was released from the rescue mission on Saturday.

“We all know that there's a possibility of this becoming quite a protracted sit and wait,” said Andrew Peacock, a passenger onboard the Akademik Shokalskiy, speaking to AFP via satellite phone.

“I think people are just looking at that next step when that second icebreaker arrives.

“We really are just hoping that the ... two powerful icebreaker ships will provide the breakage of ice that we need.”

The captain of the Aurora, Murray Doyle, said his ship — which can cut through ice up to 1.35 meters thick or reverse and ram thicker ice to break it up — was always “option B.”

“We were always going to be sent on until the end,” he told a Sydney Morning Herald reporter onboard his ship, but admitted the ship was not built to take on ice thicker than 3 meters.

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