Argentina's Macri orders probe for 'truth', as hopes fade over missing submarine

Macri speaks during a press conference, after a meeting with the high command of the Argentine Navy.
Macri speaks during a press conference, after a meeting with the high command of the Argentine Navy.PHOTO: AFP
Macri gets a briefing from Argentine navy officials in Buenos Aires, Nov 24 2017.
Macri gets a briefing from Argentine navy officials in Buenos Aires, Nov 24 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina (AFP) - President Mauricio Macri on Friday (Nov 24) ordered an inquiry to "know the truth" about what happened to Argentina's missing San Juan submarine that disappeared with the loss its 44 crew.

Speaking to reporters at the headquarters of the Argentine navy, Macri said the 34-year-old submarine had gone through a refit and was in "in perfect condition."

Macri said the tragedy "will require a serious, in-depth investigation that will yield certainty about what has happened".

"My commitment is with the truth," he said.

Argentina's navy has been fiercely criticised for the way it mismanaged the operation since first reporting the submarine overdue at its Mar del Plata base on Nov 16.

The navy took several days to say that the San Juan had reported a problem with its batteries in its final communication on Nov 15.

Only on Thursday did the navy confirm there had been an explosion on board, which experts said was likely linked to the battery problem.

"Until we have the complete information, we do not have to look for the guilty, to look for those responsible. First we have to have certainty of what happened and why it happened," said Macri.

"My commitment is with the truth. It is the same commitment that we have throughout the government and the navy, which is suffering this moment with great pain. We will know the truth in time from that investigation."

The centre-right leader was speaking as the search for the San Juan shifted from rescue to recovery on Friday, as navy officials lost hope of finding any of the crew alive.

"We have to find the submarine at the bottom of the sea, the area is large, the environment hostile, and the search very difficult," said Argentine navy spokesman Enrique Balbi.

Magistrate Marta Yanez has already begun preliminary investigations into the disaster. She told reporters that unlike a plane, "the submarine does not have a black box. The black box is the submarine," and it would have to be recovered before the causes of the explosion could be known.

Officially the navy has not declared the loss of the crew, but marine experts believe an explosion would have been catastrophic.

Brenda Salva, friend of crew member Damian Tagliapietra, said she had been told by the commander of the Mar del Plata naval base: "They are all dead."

For the relatives of the crew, grief had turned to anger by Friday.

"I want to tell Admiral Marcelo Srur that he is not in a position to be in charge of a force, and to the president (Mauricio Macri), to bring order," said Maria Rosa Belcastro, mother of 38-year-old Lieutenant Fernando Villarreal.

Relatives have focused their anger on the condition of the 34-year-old sub, which had undergone a seven-year refit to extend its service, and the navy's guardedness since the start of the search operation.

In his comments at the navy headquarters, Macri also paid tribute to the "patriotism, heroism and bravery" of the San Juan's crew.

"For all of them and their families, my greatest affection," he said.

To the relatives of the missing crew, angry at the way the navy has handled the operation, he said: "The pain is great but we are together, and we are going to travel this road all the way together."

HEADS TO ROLL

Argentine press reports on Friday said Macri's centre-right government was preparing to sack navy chief Srur in a purge of top brass in a country where the military is distrusted.

Memories are still fresh in Argentina of the 1976-83 military dictatorship responsible for the disappearance of an estimated 30,000 people.

The San Juan tragedy comes a month after Macri's government was accused of a cover-up in the killing of activist Santiago Maldonado after he was arrested by security forces during an indigenous rights protest.

"The government is considering changing the leadership of the navy. They believe there was negligence in the disappearance of the ARA San Juan and criticise the handling of the situation," the influential Clarin daily said.

One newspaper reported that the navy had taken five days to inform the defense ministry of a battery problem aboard the German-built diesel-electric submarine.

Macri, however, chose Friday to pay tribute to the navy and the armed forces as a whole. "Because they are the ones who have a central responsibility in the life of this country, which is to take care of our country, to take care of all of us," he said.

The San Juan "has 500 tonnes of lead-acid batteries, which release hydrogen if there is an overcharge in the battery. Hydrogen in contact with oxygen is explosive," said Gustavo Mauvecin, director of the Centre for Hyperbaric Medicine at Mar del Plata.

Horacio Tobias, a former diver aboard the San Juan, said the blast was likely "so violent that they did not have time to realize anything."

Depths plummet from 200m to over 3,000m on the edge of the Argentine shelf, where the sound of the explosion was picked up by hydro-acoustic sensors used by the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organisation.

Experts say the sub would begin to break-up once below depths of around 600m.

A Russian oceanographic research ship was steaming towards the area on Friday to join the multinational operation involving around a dozen countries.

The Yantar is equipped with two mini-subs designed to work at depths of 6,000m.