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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Argentina locates missing submarine a year after it disappeared

Forty-four crew perished when the San Juan went missing on its way back to port

The Argentine navy submarine ARA San Juan leaves Buenos Aires on June 2, 2014. Argentine Navy via Reuters
The Argentine navy submarine ARA San Juan leaves Buenos Aires on June 2, 2014. Argentine Navy via Reuters

The wreckage of an Argentine navy submarine that exploded and disappeared one year ago with 44 crew on board was located in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday.

There has been "positive identification of the ARA San Juan," at a depth of 800 metres, the navy said on Twitter.

The submarine was found by the Seabed Constructor, a vessel owned by US search firm Ocean Infinity, which set out in September on the latest attempt to find the San Juan.

The navy lost contact with the submarine on November 15 last year, about 450 kilometres from the Argentine coast. It was on its way back to base from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina.

The discovery was announced just two days after the families of the missing sailors held a commemoration one year after the sub disappeared on November 15, 2017.

On Thursday, on the anniversary of the disappearance, President Mauricio Macri said the families of the submariners should not feel alone and delivered an "absolute and non-negotiable commitment" to find "the truth".

"I still had hopes that they could be alive," said Luis Niz, the father of one of the missing sailors, even though the government of President Mauricio Macri had earlier declared that there were no survivors from the San Juan.

"We are with the other relatives. They are going to show us the photos. They say that our youngsters are inside," said Yolanda Mendiola, the mother of crewman Leandro Cisneros, 28.

"We are all destroyed here."

The Ocean Infinity ship "decided to do a new search and, thanks to God, it was able to find the zone", navy spokesman Rodolfo Ramallo told Todo Noticias TV.

"Now another chapter opens. From the analysis of the state in which the submarine has been found, we will see how to proceed," he said.

The navy has been fiercely criticised for its handling of the operation since first reporting the submarine overdue at Mar del Plata on November 16, 2017.

It was only several days into the tragedy that navy officials acknowledged the old, German-built submarine had reported a problem with its batteries in its final communication of November 15.

Nearly 10 days later, the navy confirmed there had been an explosion on board, which experts said was likely linked to the battery problem.

Several senior officers were dismissed, including navy chief Marcelo Srur.

An air and sea search involved units from 13 countries but the majority withdrew before the end of 2017, as the wintry South Atlantic refused to give up its secrets.

The Seabed Constructor is equipped with cameras that can be submerged to a depth of 6,000 metres. It was to receive a reward of $7.5 million (Dh27.5m) if it found the missing sub.

Before it departed for its mission, Luis Tagliapietra, whose son Alejandro was a lieutenant on the San Juan, described it as "the last opportunity to find them."

Ocean Infinity was also assigned the task of searching for the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 which vanished without trace in March 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The navy has a poor reputation in Argentina.

During the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, some navy facilities, like the one at Mar del Plata, served as detention and torture centres, and an estimated 30,000 people disappeared.

Authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the San Juan's disappearance. The judge heading the case has so far heard testimony from 70 people but says she is no closer to knowing what happened.

Families of the missing crew had kept up pressure on the government not to give up on the search.

Several grieving mothers of the missing have turned up every morning in a forlorn protest at the sub's home base in Mar del Plata.

The submarine disappeared on the edge of the Argentine shelf where depths plummet from 200 metres to more than 3,000m.

Experts say the sub would have been crushed by water pressure once it dropped below about 600m.