NEW DELHI -- Approximately 18 sailors were feared trapped inside an Indian submarine berthed off Mumbai after an explosion and fire early Wednesday, the country's navy reported, as divers worked in the waters around the damaged ship trying to craft a rescue.
The explosion erupted shortly after midnight local time, leaving the diesel- and electricity-powered submarine mostly submerged at the dock, the navy said in a statement. Grainy social media images showed a huge white-and-yellow fireball illuminating the sky like a premature dawn, followed by a fire that blazed for several hours. The base where the accident took place is a secure area off-limits to reporters.
Defense Minister A.K. Antony told reporters in New Delhi that many sailors died in the incident, without providing details. “It is the greatest tragedy of recent times,” he added while en route to Mumbai to oversee the rescue and recovery operation.
An investigation was ordered into the apparent accident, with early speculation focused on a gas leak, problems with the battery system -- the same vessel was involved in a battery fire in 2010 that killed one sailor -- or an explosion involving onboard missiles or torpedoes. None of those scenarios were immediately confirmed.
"It’s a very nasty one," said Rahul Bedi, India correspondent with IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, a military publication. “In a confined space, it’s very tricky once that happens.”
The 16-year old Russian-built submarine INS Sindhurakshak, or "sea defender," returned last year after an $80-million overhaul. The vessel is 238 feet long and 32 feet wide and carries a full crew of 52. Most of those aboard reportedly managed to jump from the ship.
The vessel is reportedly one of India’s 10 Kilo-class submarines, acquired from Moscow between 1986 and 2000 and equipped with Russian Club-S cruise missile systems.
The accident comes at an awkward time. On Monday, the navy launched its first domestically produced aircraft carrier with great fanfare two days after the reactor on its first nuclear submarine was activated. And Thursday is India’s independence day, when armed forces are showcased for their role in building the young democracy.
India’s military is in the process of upgrading aging Soviet-era weaponry in order to better respond to perceived threats from rivals China and neighboring Pakistan. The nation’s submarine fleet, consisting of 10 Russian-made and four German-made vessels, has been in decline, analysts said, so the loss of even one ship will be felt.
Six French-made submarines are on order, but their delivery has been delayed by several years and is now slated for around 2015. Another plan to import two and build four more submarines has been mired in red tape.
India’s conventional submarine fleet has focused largely on a perceived threat from Pakistan, Bedi said, with China less of an initial focus given limits on the vessels' range and the time they can spend at sea. However, the addition of nuclear submarines in the next few years is designed to counter Beijing’s growing naval ambitions in the region, he added.
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Tanvi Sharma in the New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.