Time running out for missing Indonesian submarine as US joins search

Jakarta: Rescue teams from several countries were battling against time on Friday to find a missing Indonesian Navy submarine lost in the Bali Sea with 53 crew, which would be rapidly running out of oxygen if not already crushed by water pressure.

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Search helicopters and more navy ships left Bali and a naval base in Java at first light heading to the area where contact was lost with the 44-year-old KRI Nanggala-402 on Wednesday as it prepared to conduct a torpedo drill.

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“The main priority is the safety of the 53 crew members,” President Joko Widodo said late on Thursday.

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Indonesia’s navy said it was investigating whether the submarine lost power during a dive and could not carry out emergency procedures as it descended to a depth of 600-700 metres, well beyond its survivable limits.

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Aerial search

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An object with “high magnetic force” had been spotted “floating” at a depth of 50-100 metres, Indonesian Navy Chief of Staff Yudo Margono said, and an aerial search had earlier spotted an oil spill near the submarine’s last location.

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If the submarine was still intact, officials said it would only have enough air to last about another 15 hours until early Saturday morning.

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The diesel-electric powered submarine could withstand a depth of up to 500 metres (1,640 ft) but anything more could be fatal, Navy spokesman Julius Widjojono said. The Bali Sea can reach depths of more than 1,500 metres.

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One of the people on board the boat was the commander of the Indonesian submarine fleet, Harry Setiawan.

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An Indonesian defence expert said the crew could still be found alive.

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“But if the submarine is in a 700-metre sea trough, it will be difficult for them to survive because underwater pressure will cause cracks and ruptures of the steel hull,” Connie Rahakundini Bakrie said.

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The submarine joined the Indonesian fleet in 1981, according to the defence ministry, and underwent a refit in South Korea completed in 2012. It was said to be in good condition.

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“I hope that they will be found alive,” said Berda Asmara, the wife of crew member Guntur Ari Prasetyo, 39, who has sailed on the Nanggala for 10 years.

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“We had a video call. He told me that he would go sailing and asked me to pray for him,” she said of the last time they spoke.

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Specialised ships

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Australia, India, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States have sent specialised ships or aircraft in response to Indonesian requests for assistance.

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The U.S. Defence Department is sending “airborne assets” to assist in the submarine search, a Pentagon spokesman said.

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Two Australian Navy ships were heading for the search area including a frigate with special sonar capabilities, the defence department said.

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Indonesia operates five submarines – two German-built Type 209s including Nanggala and three newer South Korean vessels.

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It has been seeking to modernise its defence capabilities but some of its equipment is old and there have been fatal accidents in recent years.

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