A U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker will leave Australia for Antarctica on Sunday to rescue more than 120 crew members aboard two icebreakers trapped in pack ice near the frozen continent's eastern edge, officials said.
The 122-meter (399-foot) cutter, the Polar Star, is responding to a Jan. 3 request from Australia, Russia and China to assist the Russian and Chinese ships because "there is sufficient concern that the vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice," the Coast Guard said in a statement.
The Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped in ice-clogged Commonwealth Bay since Christmas Eve, while the Chinese ship which came to its rescue, Xue Long or Snow Dragon in Chinese, reported on Friday it too had become stuck nearby.
A day earlier, the Chinese ship's helicopter had retrieved from the Russian ship 52 scientists, journalists and tourists who are now on their way home aboard an Australian icebreaker, Aurora Australis.
Authorities say the 101 crew aboard the Chinese ship and 22 aboard the Russian ship were well provisioned and in no immediate danger.
The Polar Star was cutting short its planned stop in Sydney, Australia, to assist.
"Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels." Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard Pacific Area commander, said in a statement. "We are always ready and duty bound to render assistance in one of the most remote and harsh environments on the face of the globe."
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Coordination Centre, which oversaw the rescue, said the Polar Star, the Coast Guard's only active heavy polar icebreaker, will leave Sydney on Sunday after taking on supplies. It would take about seven days for the Polar Star to reach Commonwealth Bay, depending on weather, AMSA said in a statement.