BUENOS AIRES – The submarine that went missing nine days ago while heading northward from the country’s southern tip was not on a secret mission and authorities have no reason to believe the vessel was attacked, the Argentine navy said on Friday.
“The submarine was sailing from Ushuaia to Mar del Plata on a direct route inside the exclusive economic zone, near the edge, exercising the monitoring of sovereignty as any other navy unit does,” Capt. Enrique Balbi told reporters at naval headquarters in Buenos Aires.
Headquarters last heard from the ARA San Juan on the morning of Nov. 15, when the sub was located in the San Jorge Gulf region some 432 kilometers (268 miles) east of the Argentine coast.
“It was not on a secret or special mission,” the navy spokesman said in response to a question during Friday’s briefing. “There is no indication of any attack or anything similar.”
In Mar del Plata, the sub’s home port, some 350 people, including friends and family of the San Juan’s 44-member crew, mounted a procession on Friday from the city’s Our Lady of Lourdes cathedral to the naval base to honor the missing sailors and pray for their safe return.
“The truth is that we are bad at this moment. At the beginning we had hope ... but we still have hope!” one of the participants said.
The procession, which lasted about 90 minutes, came amid growing discontent among the families of the crew after they learned Thursday that an explosion was detected near the sub’s last known location on the day contact was lost.
A “short, singular, anomalous, violent and non-nuclear event consistent with an explosion” was detected Nov. 15, Balbi revealed Thursday, citing information received from Ambassador Rafael Grossi, a nuclear expert and Argentina’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Referring Friday to the possible explosion, Balbi told reporters that “we inferred that it could have been the submarine,” but since that has not been definitively determined the search in the area is continuing.
More than a dozen nations are assisting Argentina in the search for the San Juan, which was built in Germany in 1983 and refurbished a few years ago.
A Brazilian submarine-rescue ship and a Russian transport aircraft were expected to arrive in the search area on Friday, which began with a blistering public reprimand of the navy brass by the administration of Argentine President Mauricio Macri.
The government announced the start of an investigation to “determine the degree of responsibility and non-compliance within the chain of command” and said that the current naval command would be dismissed once the submarine was found.
Among other things, the probe will look into why information was not provided in a timely manner to Macri and Defense Minister Oscar Aguad after the submarine went missing.
Investigators will want to know when the navy first learned about the possible explosion and why Macri’s administration had not been informed of a short-circuit in the submarine’s batteries that led to an order for the vessel to return immediately to its base in Mar del Plata.