The Argentine Navy and a fleet of regional aircraft and boats from 13 different nations continued their desperate search Wednesday for the submarine ARA San Juan, attaching flagging hopes to what experts call a "hydro-acoustic anomaly" detected in the vicinity of the sub's last known location.
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The detection of the sounds came as the Navy's mission to rescue the 44 crew on board reached a “critical phase” due to the fast-dwindling supply of the vessel's last bit of oxygen, navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters.
“There has been no contact with anything that could be the San Juan submarine,” the spokesman added.
Various monitoring devices picked up a strange noise on Nov. 15, just three hours after the last radio message from the sub, Balbi told reporters at navy headquarters in Buenos Aires. The sound was in the vicinity of the vessel's then-location, 432 kilometers (268 miles) east of the Argentine coast, he said.
Asked whether the noise could have been caused by an explosion, he replied sharply: "It's a noise. We are not going to make conjectures," adding that data on the noise was being analyzed.
"We are deploying, as we did with the other indications, navy ships that have sonar and sub-aquatic telephone capacity. They will be arriving at night and a P-8 is expected to drop sound-buoys," he said.
The countries assisting are Brazil, Britain, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Norway, Peru, the United States and Uruguay. The countries are providing naval vessels, aircraft, about 4,000 personnel and considerable technological resources to assist in the search efforts, according to Argentina's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Planes have covered some 500,000 square kilometers (190,000 square miles) of the ocean surface, but much of the area has not yet been scoured by the boats.
Vice Admiral Antonio Mozzarelli, who inspected the ARA San Juan in 2014 following repairs to the sub, told EFE earlier Wednesday that he did not expect the submarine to be rescued.
For Mozzarelli, the failure of the crew to bring the vessel to the surface and launch flares was one of several troubling signs.
With the vessel now missing for seven days and 48 hours overdue in its arrival at its base in Mar del Plata, "all that is left is to look and to wait to learn what happened," Mozzarelli said.
Argentines have been gripped by the search, with local newspapers placing photographs on their front pages of crew members’ relatives praying. On social media, the hash tags “Los 44” (The 44) and (navy spokesman) “Enrique Balbi” are trending topics on Twitter. Comparisons have also been made to the most recent major rescue operation in the region when 33 miners in northern Chile were rescued in 2010 after 69 days trapped underground.
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The disappearance has highlighted the sparse resources and low quality of training faced by the armed forces since the end of the military dictatorship in the early 1980s.
“Human rights violations perpetrated by the dictatorship broke the bond between society and the armed forces,” said Andrei Serbin Pont, research director at the CRIES think tank in Buenos Aires.
“The majority of Argentines don’t really care about the armed forces, therefore politicians aren’t particularly interested in maintaining any sort of military policy or defense policy.”
In 2014, the fleet spent a total of just 19 hours submerged, versus the 190 days needed “for the fulfillment of operational and training needs,” according to a May 2016 report by specialist publication Jane’s Sentinel.
Reports in Argentina claim that the search is sparking increased friction between military and civilian authorities, with the defense ministry concerned that the navy has not been forthcoming with information, a claim navy officials deny.
A ministry source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told Reuters the ministry has opened an investigation into the incident and has not ruled out criminal charges once the search operation is complete.