Possible explosion detected near missing Argentine sub's last known location

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina, Nov 23 (Reuters) - The Argentine navy raised the possibility on Thursday that a navy submarine missing in the South Atlantic suffered an explosion, heightening concerns over the fate of the 44 crew members.

An abnormal sound detected underwater by an international agency on the morning of Nov. 15, around the time that the ARA San Juan sent its last signal and in the same area, was "consistent with an explosion," navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters.

The navy did not have enough information to say what the cause of the explosion could have been or whether the vessel might have been attacked, Balbi said.

He was commenting on information the navy received on Thursday from the Comprehensive nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), an international body that runs a global network of listening posts designed to check for secret atomic blasts.

RELATED: Missing Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan

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Missing Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan
The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A crew member of the Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan stands on the vessel at the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Photo released on November 17, 2017 by Telam showing the A.R.A. San Juan submarine being delivered to the Argentine Navy after being repaired at the Argentine Naval Industrial Complex (CINAR) in Buenos Aires, on May 23, 2014. The Argentine submarine is missing in Argentine waters after it lost communication more than 48 hours ago. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORTIZ / Argentina OUT (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORTIZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A crew member of the Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan stands on the vessel at the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Ships are seen at an Argentine Naval Base, where the missing-at-sea ARA San Juan submarine sailed from, in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 18, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Picture released by TELAM showing Mar� Morales (L) mother of submarinist Luis Garcia, accompnied by an unidentified man at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 18, 2017. Argentina's navy is hunting for one of its submarines which has been reported missing in the South Atlantic with a crew of 44 on board. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / Alejandro MORITZ / Argentina OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORITZ' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORITZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture released by TELAM showing unidentified people gathering at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 17, 2017. Argentina's navy is hunting for one of its submarines which has been reported missing in the South Atlantic with a crew of 44 on board. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / Alejandro MORITZ / Argentina OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORITZ' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORITZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo released on November 17, 2017 by Telam showing the A.R.A. San Juan submarine being delivered to the Argentine Navy after being repaired at the Argentine Naval Industrial Complex (CINAR) in Buenos Aires, on May 23, 2014. The Argentine submarine is missing in Argentine waters after it lost communication more than 48 hours ago. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORTIZ / Argentina OUT (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORTIZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A man reacts outside the Argentine Naval Base, where the missing at sea ARA San Juan submarine sailed from, in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A heart formed with stripes with the colours of Argentina's national flag hangs from a fence outside the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Navy crew work aboard the ARA Sarandi destroyer before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
A woman walks past an Argentine national flag hanging from a fence outside the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. Words on the flag read "We are with you". REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Navy crew work aboard the ARA Sarandi destroyer before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
The ARA Sarandi destroyer is seen before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Argentine Navy captain Gabriel Galeazzi looks on after a news conference at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Malvina Vallejos, sister of missing submariner Celso Oscar Vallejos hangs a supportive message for the 44 crew members of Argentine missing submarine outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
Malvina Vallejos, sister of missing submariner Celso Oscar Vallejos speaks outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
People pray at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017, after being refueled to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan A man . An Argentine submarine has been lost in the South Atlantic for five days now with 44 people aboard. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
A man prays at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017, after being refueled to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan A man . An Argentine submarine has been lost in the South Atlantic for five days now with 44 people aboard. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
People pray at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
A man waits in front outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. Argentina's navy revealed Monday that a submarine missing for five days reported a mechanical breakdown in its final communication, and that weekend signals did not come from the vessel, dimming hopes for its 44 crew members. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
An Argentinian flag painted with a submarine is dislpayed as supportive message for the 44 crew members of Argentine missing submarine outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. Argentina's navy revealed Monday that a submarine missing for five days reported a mechanical breakdown in its final communication, and that weekend signals did not come from the vessel, dimming hopes for its 44 crew members. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
Argentina's Navy destroyer ARA Sarandi sails off to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan, from the north breakwater of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for a missing Argentine submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Vienna-based agency, which has monitoring stations equipped with devices including underwater microphones that scan the oceans for sound waves, said in a statement that two of its stations had detected an unusual signal near where the submarine went missing. But the agency was more guarded about whether this was caused by an explosion.

A huge sea and air hunt is being conducted for the San Juan, a German-built, diesel-electric powered submarine that was launched in 1983, as crew members' relatives wait anxiously for news more than a week after the vessel disappeared.

The relatives, camped out in a naval base in the coastal city of Mar del Plata, have been largely optimistic until now, but they shed tears and insulted authorities after being briefed on the news of the possible explosion. They were told about it before the public announcement.

Balbi said that the news of the abnormal sound was consistent with a separate report received Wednesday of an "acoustic anomaly" in the same area and around the same time. The San Juan was some 430 km (270 miles) off the Patagonian coast when it sent its last signal.

"This is very important because it allows us to correlate and confirm the acoustic anomaly from the U.S. report yesterday," Balbi said. "Here, we're talking about a singular, short, violent, non-nuclear event, consistent with an explosion."

In Vienna, CTBTO hydroacoustic engineer Mario Zampolli said the signal his agency had detected, "could be consistent with an explosion but there is no certainty about this." Speaking to Reuters, he agreed with Balbi's description of the signal as unusual and short, adding that the cause was non-natural.

The submarine was en route from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to Mar del Plata, some 400 km (250 miles) south of Buenos Aires, when it reported an electrical malfunction shortly before disappearing.

The vessel had seven days of oxygen supply, meaning the crew would be running low if it had not been able to surface.

HOPE FADING

The news of the possible explosion prompted some family members to fear the worst, and many criticized the authorities' response to the crisis.

"They kept us here for a week. Why did they not tell us?" Itati Leguizamon, the wife of a crew member. "I do not have any more hope, it is over."

Some relatives have questioned authorities for letting the crew navigate on an aging submarine - criticism that has highlighted the armed forces' dwindling resources since the end of a military dictatorship in the 1980s.

Authorities have said the level of maintenance, not the age, was what mattered, and that the vessel was in good condition. It received a major mid-life upgrade in 2009, in which its four diesel engines and electric propeller engines were replaced, according to specialist publication Jane's Sentinel.

Earlier on Thursday, a U.S. embassy spokeswoman said an object detected by a U.S. Navy plane near the area where the submarine sent its last signal turned out not to be the missing vessel. The plane, a P-8A Poseidon, was one of dozens of Argentine and foreign boats and planes involved in the hunt.

(Additional reporting by Maximilian Heath and Maximiliano Rizzi in Buenos Aires and Francois Murphy in Vienna; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Frances Kerry)

 

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