Russia's government claims the energy wealth beneath the Arctic Ocean. Trying to return Russia's status as a great power two small Russian submarines completed voyage to the floor of the Ocean.
After spending most of Thursday underwater, the two white and orange deep-diving subs surfaced near the North Pole, guided from the murky depths to a football field-sized hole cut in the thick Arctic ice by four beacons placed on the perimeter.
"It was difficult," said Artur Chilingarov, the leader of the expedition, in remarks reported by the state-owned ITAR-Tass news service. He and his two crew mates spent eight hours and 40 minutes submerged, the news service said - the last 40 minutes hunting for the break in the ice.
Expedition organizers said the greatest risk facing the six crew members, three aboard each vessel, was getting trapped under the ice and running out of air. Each sub had a 72-hour supply.
The second sub and its crew, including a Swede and an Australian, surfaced more than an hour after the first. That crew had spent about nine and half hours under the ice.
Chilingarov told cheering colleagues aboard the polar research vessel Akademik Fyodorov that he was proud to have helped plant a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed.
"It was so good down there," said Chilingarov, 68, a famed polar scientist. "If someone else goes down there in 100 or 1,000 years, he will see our Russian flag."
Russia's President Vladimir Putin called the mission participants after their return, congratulating them on a successful mission, the Kremlin said.
Part serious scientific expedition and part political theater, Thursday's dives could mark the start of a scramble among nations that border the Arctic for control of the northern polar sea bed. Those nations include Russia, the United States, Norway, Canada and Denmark, through its territory Greenland.
Warming global temperatures have made the region, a frozen terra incognita for most of history, increasingly open to shipping and energy exploration.
Organizers said the dive was the first to the sea floor at Earth's northernmost point. The expedition received intense local media coverage. While some Russians were blase, others expressed pride.
"Russia is a great power which needs resources, territories - and the prospect of its development determines its action," Yevgeny Gaziyev, a Muscovite, told The Associated Press.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a visit to Manila that the expedition should substantiate Russia's claim that the Eurasian continental shelf extends to the North Pole.
"I think this expedition will supply additional scientific evidence for our aspirations," Lavrov said. He added, though, that the issue of which nation owns what portion of the polar region "will be resolved in strict compliance with international law."
A U.S. State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said the Russian government was entitled to submit its claim "as members of the Law of the Sea convention." But he dismissed the significance of planting a flag in the North Pole seabed.
"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 Russia's voyage to the Arctic Ocean floor as "just a show."
"Look, this isn't the 15th century," he said, according to the Web site of Canadian Television. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory."'
Canada's own claims to the Arctic, he said, were "well-established."
Starting around 9:30 a.m (0530 GMT) Thursday, the Russian submersibles Mir-1 and Mir-2 dove some 2Ѕ miles (4 kilometers) from the surface to the Arctic shelf, where they collected geologic and water samples, and dropped the 1-meter (3.3-foot) titanium canister containing the Russian flag.
About 2Ѕ hours later, Chilingarov - speaking over a communications link with the research ship Akademik Fyodorov on the surface - told colleagues that his craft, the Mir-1, had reached the seabed.
"The landing was smooth, the yellowish ground is around us, no sea dwellers are seen," he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. Mir-2 reached the bottom about a half-hour later.
Each sub spent about 40 minutes on the sea floor, spokesman Sergei Balyasnikov of Russia's Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic, which organized the expedition, told The Associated Press.
The crew members, who returned in good physical condition, had studied the water chemistry, biology and geology near the seabed at the pole, Balyasnikov said.
Russian researchers planned to use the dive to help map the Lomonosov ridge, a 1,240-mile (1,995-kilometer) underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region. The ridge was discovered by the Soviets in 1948 and named after a famed 18th-century Russian scientist, Mikhail Lomonosov.
In December 2001, Moscow claimed that the ridge was an extension of the Eurasian continent, and therefor part of Russia's continental shelf under international law. The U.N. rejected Moscow's claim, citing a lack of evidence, but Russia is set to resubmit it in 2009.
If recognized, the claim would give Russia control of more than 460,000 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers), representing almost half of the Arctic seabed. Little is known about the ocean floor near the pole, but by some estimates it could contain vast oil and gas deposits.
The U.S. Senate has not yet ratified U.S. accession to the Law of the Sea, which would give Washington a seat on the panel that would eventually rule on the Russian claim.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said the Bush administration would continue to press hard for ratification in order to give the United States a voice on the commission.
The Russian expedition leader, Chilingarov, a renowned polar scientist, became a hero of the Soviet Union in the 1980s after successfully leading an expedition aboard a research vessel that was trapped for a time in Antarctic sea ice. He is a deputy speaker of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.
Joining the Russian scientists on the expedition were politicians and polar enthusiasts. Chilingarov's crew mates on Mir-1 were Dr. Anatoly Sagalevich, the pilot, and lawmaker Vladimir Gruzdev.
Before the dive, Gruzdev joked about what the submarines might find on the seabed. "And what if we encounter Atlantis there?" Gruzdev said, according to Russia's Channel One.
The Mir-2's crew included two foreigners, Michael McDowell, an Australian described by the state-run ITAR-Tass news agency as a veteran polar explorer, and Frederik Paulsen, a Swedish pharmaceuticals millionaire described as a co-sponsor of the effort.
The Mir-1 reached a depth of 4,261 meters (13,980 feet), Tass reported. The Mir-2 went deeper, to a point 4,302 meters (14,144 feet) below the surface.
The deepest dive on record, according to several sources, was by the bathyscaphe Trieste, which in January 1960 descended 10,915 meters (35,810 feet) into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific.