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September 25, 2017

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Antarctic rescue ship may now itself be trapped

SYDNEY -- The Chinese icebreaker that came to the rescue of a Russian ship stranded in Antarctica, helping evacuate dozens of passengers, has signaled it may now be trapped in heavy ice, Australian authorities said Friday.

The Xue Long — or Snow Dragon — has not moved for several days as it took part in multiple attempts to rescue passengers on a scientific expedition aboard the Russian vessel Akademik Shokalskiy.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the Xue Long notified it "at 1 p.m. AEDT (0200 GMT) this afternoon it has concerns about their ability to move through heavy ice in the area."

The Russian ship has been stuck since Christmas Eve in frozen seas 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont d'Urville.

On Thursday, a helicopter from the Xue Long used a makeshift landing pad next to the marooned ship to ferry 52 scientists, tourists and journalists to an Australian government supply vessel, the Aurora Australis.

But instead of making for an Australian base, as originally planned, the ship is now waiting to see if the Xue Long itself needs assistance.

"The Aurora Australis has been placed on standby by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Coordination Centre Australia to remain in open water in the area as a precautionary measure," AMSA said.

AMSA said the Chinese ship would attempt to maneuver through the ice when tidal conditions are most suitable during the early hours Saturday, adding there was no immediate danger to those onboard.

The rescue mission was beset by extreme conditions from the start, with the Xue Long and Aurora Australis both unable to break through the ice to free the stranded Russian ship, despite several attempts.

Rain, snow and wind had also delayed plans for the helicopter rescue mission.

"This one was quite difficult to do," said John Young, general manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's emergency response division.

"All Antarctic operations are difficult just because of the nature of the place and in this particular case the movement of the ice and the changing of the weather introduced their own complications."

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