INDIA’S NAVY SAYS all 18 sailors on board a submarine which exploded and sank today are feared dead, and admitted the incident had left a “dent” in the country’s defences.
The fully-armed INS Sindhurakshak, returned by original manufacturer Russia earlier this year after a major refit, exploded in flames in Mumbai shortly after 12am local time and sank in a military shipyard.
The disaster is thought to be the Indian navy’s worst since the sinking of a frigate by a Pakistani submarine in 1971. Defence Minister A.K. Antony described the explosion as the “greatest tragedy in recent time”.
“I feel sad about those navy personnel who have lost their lives in service of the country,” he told reporters in New Delhi.
Chief of naval staff D.K. Joshi said no sign of life had been detected on board even after divers managed to enter through the main hatch in a bid to refloat the vessel.
“While we hope for the best, we have to prepare for the worst,” he told reporters in Mumbai, adding that there was a possibility some crew might have found air pockets but “the indicators are negative”.
“It is certainly a dent on Indian navy’s submarine capabilities for the time being,” he added.
File photo of the INS Sindhurakshak (Wikimedia Commons)
The blast came days after New Delhi trumpeted the launch of its first domestically-produced aircraft carrier and the start of sea trials for its first Indian-made nuclear submarine.
The world’s biggest democracy has been expanding its armed forces rapidly to upgrade its mostly Soviet-era weaponry and respond to what is perceived as a growing threat from regional rival China.
Amateur video footage showed a fireball in the forward section of the Sindhurakshak, where torpedoes and missiles are stored as well as the battery units.
“There were two to three explosions and the night sky lit up briefly,” eyewitness Dharmendra Jaiswal said.
Joshi said there had been an initial fire which appeared to have sparked a big explosion as weaponry ignited.
“The basic question is what caused the fire and explosion. We do not have an answer to that question as of now,” he said.
A board of enquiry would probe all possible explanations including sabotage, but “the indicators at this point of time do not support that theory”, he said.
Ambulance and rescue workers on the quayside (Image: Rafiq Maqbool/AP/Press Association Images)
The submarine was built in 1997 in Saint Petersburg and had completed 1,000 dive hours since returning after its refurbishment.
Rahul Bedi, a defence expert with IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, told AFP the 16-year-old submarine lacked some safety features common to newer vessels even after its $80 million overhaul.
“They don’t have escape routes in the event of accidents, unlike some of the modern submarines,” he said.
The Indian navy has 14 submarines, but only between seven and nine are operational at any one time because of regular repair and refitting operations.