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Stranded Antarctic passengers rescued by Chinese chopper

SYDNEY -- All 52 passengers who spent Christmas and New Year trapped on an icebound Russian research vessel in Antarctica were airlifted from the ice Thursday in a dramatic rescue mission.

A Chinese helicopter which landed on a makeshift landing pad next to the marooned ship ferried the scientists, tourists and journalists in groups of 12 to an Australian government supply ship, the Aurora Australis.

The passengers had been stuck for 10 days in thick pack ice 100 nautical miles east of the French base of Dumont d'Urville after their vessel Akademik Shokalskiy became frozen in place.

Three icebreaking ships had been unable to clear a path to it.

“Aurora Australis has advised AMSA that the 52 passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy are now on board,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said late Thursday.

Expedition leader Chris Turney expressed his “great relief” that the complex operation, which had been fraught with setbacks and challenges, finally went off without a hitch.

“We've made it to the Aurora Australis safe and sound. A huge thanks to the Chinese and the (government's) Australian Antarctic Division for all their hard work,” Turney tweeted

The Sydney Morning Herald, which has a reporter aboard the Aurora Australis, said many of those brought off the Russian ship were relieved, with one woman crying tears of joy.

“It really has been an emotional rollercoaster,” Joanne Sim told the newspaper.

Their ordeal began on December 24 when a southerly front and blizzard trapped the Shokalskiy in a dense ice field which several icebreakers — the Australis, France's L'Astrolabe and the Chinese-flagged Xue Long — were unable to penetrate.

Efforts to reach the Russian vessel by sea were abandoned on Tuesday in favour of an aerial rescue using the Xue Long's helicopter, but heavy weather and sea ice stymied efforts until late Thursday.

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This image taken by expedition doctor Andrew Peacock of www.footloosefotography.com on Thursday, Jan. 2 shows a helicopter from the nearby Chinese icebreaker Xue Long above passengers from the stranded Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy as the first helicopter rescue takes place after over a week of being trapped in the ice off Antarctica. (AFP)

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