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Helicopter to Free Ship Passengers Trapped in Antarctic Ice

A helicopter from a Chinese icebreaker is set to lift passengers from a Russian ship stranded in Antarctic since Christmas Eve, putting an end to a nine-day international rescue cooperation.

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A helicopter from a Chinese icebreaker is set to lift passengers from a Russian ship stranded in Antarctic since Christmas Eve, putting an end to a nine-day international rescue cooperation.

The helicopter on the Snow Dragon has been waiting on standby for better weather conditions to start the rescue operation. The Chinese ship got within sight of the Akademik Shokalskiy on Saturday, but turned back after failing to break the ice, which was more than 3 meters (10 feet) deep in places.

Two other vessels, Australia's Aurora Australis and a French flagged ship, also tried to help but failed to reach the ship due to high wind and heavy snow.

"Weather conditions have improved in the area and rescue operations are likely to commence shortly by helicopter," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is coordinating the rescue, said on Thursday morning.

Weather conditions were expected to remain favorable over the next 36 hours, AMSA said.

The Russian ship left New Zealand on November 28 on a private expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by famed Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.

It became trapped on December 24, 100 nautical miles east of French Antarctic station Dumont D'Urville and about 1,500 nautical miles south of Australia's southern island state of Tasmania.

Expedition leader Chris Turney on the Russian ship also said the weather looked like a helicopter operation was possible.

"Massive thanks to Australian, Chinese & French icebreakers for all their hard work!" Turney said on his twitter page.

Rescuers planned to move all of the 52 passengers, a mix of scientists and tourists, from the Russian ship to the Snow Dragon, with the 22 Russian crew expected to stay on the ship.

That helicopter rescue process will take at least five hours dependent on weather conditions, AMSA said.

Passengers will then be transferred from the Snow Dragon to Australia's Antarctic supply ship, the Aurora Australis, which will sail to an Antarctic base first and then back to Hobart on the Australian island state Tasmania.

(Reporting by Maggie Lu Yueyang; Editing by Michael Perry)

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