U.S. icebreaker to set off for N.Pole after Russian mission

( RIA Novosti ) - A United States icebreaker will leave Seattle Monday for an Arctic research mission shortly after Russia's identical expedition designed to lay claim to a section of the resource-rich region, the Coast Guard said.

News of the Healy vessel's trip came as two Russian mini-submarines dived 14,000 feet below the Pole Thursday, planting a titanium Russian flag on the seabed in a symbolic claim to a vast slice of the Arctic territory, which Moscow says is the continuation of its continental shelf starting from Siberia.

A U.S. survey suggests the Arctic seabed contains up to 25% of the world's oil and natural gas reserves, and other mineral riches made accessible by the receding of the polar ice caused by global warming.

The Healy is one of the U.S. four polar icebreakers. But the National Research Council last September urged the construction of two new ones to replace the ageing Polar Sea and Polar Star "to project [the country's] active and influential presence" in support of its interests in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Melting sea ice in the Arctic is opening new shipping routes and sparking economic activity, such as exploration for natural resources, the council's Congress-sponsored report said.

President George W. Bush has also urged the Senate to approve U.S. participation in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea "to advance U.S. interests in the world's oceans."

A UN commission is yet to rule on Russia's claim to 1.2 million square kilometers (about 460,000 square miles) of the territory - the underwater Lomonosov Ridge and Mendeleyev Ridges - which it says is the continuation of its continental shelf.

Under international law, the five countries with territory inside the Arctic Circle - Russia, the U.S., Canada, Norway, and Denmark, which controls Greenland - are entitled to claim only a 200-mile economic zone around their coastlines.

Tom Casey, deputy State Department spokesman, said Friday the U.S. was skeptical about Russia's claim to the area but admitted the country was in its right to pursue it.

"...the Russian Government is pursuing a claim under their right to do so as members of the Law of the Sea Convention. This is something that unfortunately, the United States is not in a position to do because we have yet to ratify that convention and it's one of the reasons why we are interested and supportive of having that treaty be ratified by the U.S. Senate." Casey said.

Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, whose country also has a large section of Arctic territorial waters, dismissed Russia's symbolic flag-planting as a meaningless gesture that does not strengthen its territorial claim.

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