UPDATE: U.S. to help ships off Antarctica

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UPDATED: At the request of the Australian, Russian and Chinese governments, the U.S. Coast Guard is stepping up to help break up ice off Antarctica that has ensnared a pair of ships.

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star had been heading to that area anyway, having left its home port of Seattle early last month to eventually break through sea ice and refuel the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station on Ross Island.

Now the icebreaker is retooling to help the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy and China’s Xue Long due to “sufficient concern that the vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice,” the Coast Guard said Saturday in a statement.

ANTARCTICA – A Chinese helicopter was on the verge of launching a mission Wednesday to remove 52 passengers from a research ship stranded by ice in Antarctica.

Three ice-breaking ships have failed to reach the MV Akademik Shokalkiy, which has been trapped in 10-foot-deep slabs of ice since Christmas Eve, and the chopper rescue was put off by bad weather. 

But the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said conditions have improved, giving a helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long a 36-hour window for the operation.