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Russian subs plant flag at polar seabed

A Russian submarine dove into the Arctic Ocean yesterday to lay claim to the seabed and possible energy reserves. A Russian submarine dove into the Arctic Ocean yesterday to lay claim to the seabed and possible energy reserves. (NTV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

MOSCOW -- Two small Russian submarines completed a risky voyage deep below the North Pole yesterday, planting a titanium capsule on the Arctic Ocean floor to symbolically claim what could be vast energy reserves beneath the seabed.

The subs dove some 2.5 miles to the Arctic shelf, where they collected geologic and water samples and dropped the canister.

"If someone else goes down there in 100 or 1,000 years, he will see our Russian flag," expedition leader Artur Chilingarov, 68, a famed polar scientist, said after coming back, according to state-owned ITAR-Tass news service.

Warming global temperatures have made the region, a frozen terra incognita for most of human history, increasingly open to shipping and energy exploration.

Yesterday's dive was part serious scientific expedition and part political theater. But it could mark the start of a fierce legal scramble for control of the seabed among nations that border the Arctic, including Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark, through its territory Greenland.

Canada dismissed the flag-planting as empty showmanship, and the United States said Russia's move had no legal importance.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia said that the expedition should substantiate Russia's contention that the Eurasian continental shelf, which is under its jurisdiction, extends to the North Pole. He added though, that the issue of which nation can claim what portion of the region "will be resolved in strict compliance with international law."

A US State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said the Russian government was entitled to submit its claim but he dismissed the significance of planting the flag.

"I'm not sure whether they put a metal flag, a rubber flag or a bedsheet on the ocean floor," he said. "Either way it doesn't have any legal standing."

Peter Mackay, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, dismissed the voyage as "just a show."

"Look, this isn't the 15th century," he said, according to the website of Canadian Television. "You can't . . . just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory.' "

Russian researchers also planned to use the dive to help map the Lomonosov ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range. The ridge was discovered by the Soviets in 1948.

In 2001, Moscow asserted that the ridge was an extension of the Eurasian continent, and therefore part of Russia's continental shelf. The UN rejected that claim, citing a lack of evidence, but Russia is set to resubmit it in 2009.