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70 Die on Sub, China Reports

Mechanical failure is blamed. The state-run media rarely disclose military accidents.

May 03, 2003|Anthony Kuhn | Special to The Times

BEIJING — Mechanical failure on a Chinese navy submarine killed all 70 officers and sailors aboard the craft, official media reported on Friday.

A terse dispatch from the official New China News Agency said that according to information from the navy, submarine No. 361 was conducting exercises in China's territorial waters near the Neichangshan islands. The islands lie in the Yellow Sea between northeast China's Liaoning province and North Korea.

The report said the accident occurred "recently," but mentioned no precise date or cause.

Following the brief report was a much longer dispatch containing the text of a telegram dated May 2, sent by military chief Jiang Zemin to the families of the "martyrs."

"The officers and men of submarine No. 361 firmly remembered the sacred mission entrusted to them by the party and the people," the telegram said. "The motherland and the people will never forget their illustrious names and achievements."

While President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have dominated media attention in Beijing in the ongoing SARS epidemic, Jiang has retreated to Shanghai and kept a lower profile. Jiang relinquished his posts as China's president and general secretary of the Communist Party to Hu in November, but was elected to another five-year term as head of the Central Military Commission in March.

The report said the submarine had been towed back to base, but did not identify the base. The Yellow Sea is patrolled by China's North Sea Fleet. The fleet has a major submarine base at the port of Lushun, formerly Port Arthur, in Liaoning province, and the shipyards of Dalian are also close by.

"This is an interesting development in transparency," said Patrick Garrett, an associate analyst at the Web site GlobalSecurity.org, noting that military accidents are seldom reported in the Chinese media.

The fact that the submarine could be towed back to base suggested that fire or an inability to surface could have caused the crew to suffocate, he added.

But Bernard Cole, a professor at the Naval War College, said that the submarine could have sunk, perhaps following a collision with another vessel, and then been recovered. He noted that China recently has conducted exercises aimed at recovering sunken submarines.

Russia's loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2001 "has certainly sparked China's interest in submarine salvaging," he said. "I don't know of any other Chinese submarine accidents that have been reported," Cole added. "If this in fact is their first one, that's a pretty good safety record."

Military analysts identify submarine No. 361 as a Ming class diesel-electric powered submarine, less than a decade old. The Chinese-made Ming class is modeled after a Russian Romeo-class submarine.

Ming class submarines usually carry about 50 crew members, so it is possible, Cole said, that observers or staff officers were also onboard.

The more than a dozen Ming class submarines in China's fleet are essentially obsolete, their weapons and sensor systems several decades out of date. But the vessels remain useful for coastal defense. China has updated its fleet with the purchase of several Soviet Kilo-class diesel-powered subs.

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