Antarctic helicopter rescue underway at icebound ship

SYDNEY (AFP) - A helicopter mission to rescue 52 passengers trapped on an icebound Russian research ship finally got underway in Antarctica on Thursday after a number of false starts and failed icebreaking attempts.

The MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped in thick pack ice 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont d'Urville since Dec 24, with several icebreakers forced back to open water by impenetrable floes.

A helicopter rescue was announced on Tuesday, but heavy rain and winds saw it shelved until Thursday morning, when a second attempt was foiled by unfavourable sea ice.

But by late afternoon a favourable window had opened, and expedition leader Chris Turney announced that a helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long had arrived at the marooned ship to begin evacuating passengers.

"The Chinese helicopter has arrived at the Shokalskiy. It's 100 per cent we're off! A huge thanks to all," Mr Turney tweeted.

His posting was accompanied by footage showing the Xue Long's red helicopter touching down on a landing pad marked out on the ice beside the Akademik Shokalskiy and an orange-suited rescue crew disembarking.

A second video, posted about an hour later and shot from the deck, showed the first group of passengers trekking across the ice to the helicopter.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said it received confirmation about 6.15pm Australian time (0715 GMT) that the rescue operation had begun.

"AMSA has been advised that the first passengers have boarded the helicopter," it said.

"AMSA understands the plan is to fly from the Russian ship direct to an ice floe adjacent to the Aurora Australis."