Argentina: hunt for missing submarine to return to previously searched area

The search for the submarine ARA San Juan, which went missing a week ago in the south Atlantic is set to focus on previously searched areas, in response to the voiced frustrations of crew members' relatives

(Photo: Sky News)
(Photo: Sky News)

Ships and planes hunting for the Argentinian submarine ARA San Juan in the south Atlantic a week ago are to return to a previously searched area, as relatives of those onboard voiced their frustrations.

An Argentinian navy spokesman, Captain Enrique Balbi, said search teams would return to the area about 30 miles north of the submarine’s last registered position after a “hydro-acoustic anomaly” was determined by the US and specialist agencies to have been produced just hours after the final contact with the submarine on 15 November.

“It’s a noise. We don’t want to speculate”, Balbi said.

With the seven-day limit on the ARA San Juan’s oxygen reserves having been reached on Wednesday morning, hopes remain that the submarine was able to replenish its oxygen supply by surfacing at some point during the last week.

“I feel like I’m waiting for a corpse,” said Helena Alfaro, the sister of Cristian Ibañez, a radar officer on the missing submarine.

Crew members' relatives gathered at the Mar del Plata naval base, waiting for news (Photo: MercoPress)
Crew members' relatives gathered at the Mar del Plata naval base, waiting for news (Photo: MercoPress)

“So much protocol, so much protocol,” she complained to TN news network, referring to the Argentinian navy’s long delay in advising the president, Mauricio Macri, that it had lost contact with the submarine.

Justifying the delay, navy chiefs said that military protocol advises a 48-hour waiting period before beginning search efforts for submarines lost at sea.

“I feel like I’m at a wake, that’s how I feel,” said Alfaro. “I also feel time passing and time is crucial. I’m deeply pained by the decisions taken. Why so much protocol? Is protocol going to bring them back?”

Macri is reportedly angry with his navy commanders because of their handling of the crisis. According to the Infobae website, Macri’s defence minister, Oscar Aguad, only learned the submarine was missing when he read about it in the press, after the navy announced last Saturday that it had lost contact with the San Juan on 15 November.

Also being called into question is the wisdom of having deployed a 34-year-old submarine to make the 10-day journey from the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to the naval base in Mar del Plata.

The state of disrepair of Argentina’s naval fleet has long been an issue in the country. In one notorious incident, the navy’s British-built destroyer Santisima Trinidad, which participated on the Argentinian side in the 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, sank while moored at the Puerto Belgrano naval base in 2013. It took the navy two years to refloat the vessel.

In a video that went viral online, Macri can be seen being berated by a relative of a San Juan crew member during his visit to the Mar del Plata base on Monday morning because of the age of the submarine.

“It’s practically suicide to send them out in something so old,” a female relative is heard telling the president in the video. “Couldn’t you invest the state budget in trying to buy a new submarine? You’re playing with the lives of our people. Does someone have to die for things to change?”

The UK Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday that an RAF aircraft had landed in Argentina, to help with the search efforts.

The MoD said the British military plane, which took off from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, is packed with three tonnes of equipment, including 12 deep emergency life-support pods.

HMS Protector, a Royal Navy ice patrol ship that arrived on Sunday, was deployed to the vessel’s last known location, and used its sonar equipment to search below the waves for the missing sub.

An RAF C-130 has also joined the search following an offer of assistance, and members of the specialist Submarine Parachute Assistance Group are also offering expert advice.

HMS Clyde, an offshore patrol vessel that was returning from a patrol to South Georgia, has also assisted with the search efforts.

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