A POPULAR Salisbury rugby player has died in a deep-sea diving tragedy off the coast of Iraq.

Peter Rudolph (25) was working as a commercial diver in the south of the country when the incident happened on Monday morning.

The well-loved former Cathedral School pupil had spent nine weeks in the Gulf clearing shipping routes into the war-torn country.

"He was working for a company contracted by the US Government," said Mr Rudolph's devastated uncle, Mike Smith.

"In order to get aid in by sea, the water first needs to be dredged and cleared of debris.

"Pete was one of the divers who went ahead of the dredger to clear away bits of metal and other equipment dumped in the sea which got in its way.

"It was very dangerous - there were mines and they had been shot at by snipers.

"He found it very difficult work and was just looking forward to coming home in August for the bank holiday weekend."

Mr Rudolph, who lived with his family in St Ann Street, Salisbury, later attended Bruton School and went on to study at Oxford Brookes University.

He completed his deep-sea diving training at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, four years ago and had been stationed in Scotland before being contracted to work in the Gulf.

"It was a job he had always enjoyed," said Mr Smith.

"He had an adventurous spirit and loved going to different places around the world - but I know he found this contract in Iraq very hard.

"He had been in Kuwait first and was then moved to Iraq.

"I remember so clearly the day he left, 63 days before he died - what makes it so hard is we all knew how he was counting the days until he came home."

Mr Rudolph was an avid rugby fan and loved playing and watching the sport.

He was a key member of Salisbury rugby club and in May helped them secure victory in the prestigious Lytchett Minster seven-a-side tournament.

"Pete was a very keen rugby player and played for the First XV at Bruton," added Mr Smith.

"He loved playing for Salisbury rugby club and was great friends with the other players.

"Pete was a first-class player and we know how much his team will miss him."

The popular sportsman was well-known throughout Salisbury, where he had many life-long friends.

"He was a very sociable person," said Mr Smith.

"He loved living in the city centre and he always had friends round and staying over.

"We used to joke that the house was like a youth hostel because there were so many people round all the time."

Mr Rudolph dreamed of joining the Royal Marines and had cut back on his rugby commitments so that he could focus on the gruelling selection process.

"He was very determined," said Mr Smith.

"We are left numb by what happened. It is so sad, and I can imagine there are a lot of young people in Salisbury who were friends with Pete who are sharing our grief.

"We don't know the details of what happened yet - all we can say is that it was a terrible diving tragedy."

Mr Rudolph leaves his parents, Linda and Simon, brother, Ian, and sisters, Fiona and Helen.

An investigation is under way to establish the circumstances surrounding his tragic death.