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Sub search enters ‘critical phase’

HOPES that the missing Argentinian submarine may be found have been dashed after investigators conceded they “have no trace” of the vessel.

The ARA San Juan went missing seven days ago with 44 crew members on board, and the fear is that the oxygen on board has now run out.

Clues emerged overnight that pointed to the possible whereabouts of the missing sub — a sound signal, flares and a “heat spot” — but these have been dismissed by officials.

“At the moment we have no trace of the submarine,” navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters Wednesday morning, according Argentinian newspaper Clarin.

“We are still in this search and rescue phase. We are in the critical part. The seventh day is being fulfilled today regarding oxygen, assuming that seven days ago it has no capacity to go to the surface and renew oxygen. But we do not rule out the other options, which may be on the surface.”

Mr Balbi confirmed that search vessels had detected a sound signal and three flares, but they were determined to have not come from the missing submarine.

He also discredited reports of a “heat spot” coming from the ocean floor.

About 30 boats and planes and 4000 people from Argentina, the US, the UK, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Uruguay and Brazil are part of the search.

The monster multinational effort has included sonar, thermal imaging and magnetic technologies, but none has provided any trace of the vessel.

“Of those three media, in acoustic form with the sonars, infra-red with the thermal image and the detector of magnetic anomalies, there was no type of contact that is supposed to be the submarine,” Mr Balbi said, in comments translated into English.

Despite the frustrating lack of leads as investigators scour the ocean, Mr Balbi has not given up hope.

“We’re considering three scenarios: the submarine is above the surface with its engines running, adrift at sea without propulsion or submerged on the bottom of the ocean,” he said.

He noted that weather was favourable for the search on Wednesday, but that conditions would become “complicated” on Thursday.

Argentina’s Navy lost contact with its ARA San Juan submarine at 7.30am last Wednesday after it left the port of Ushuaia in the country’s hostile south to sail around the tip of the Patagonia region.

The 34-year-old German-built diesel electric submarine last made contact with authorities when it was about 480km from the Argentinian coast to flag a mechanical breakdown with its batteries.

The seven-day search has been heartbreaking for family members of the missing crew members, many of whom have gathered at the Mar del Plata naval base, where the submarine was destined for.

In a video that has gone viral, a female relative of a crew member emotionally interrogates Argentinian President Mauricio Macri for continuing to use the outdated vessels.

“It’s practically suicide to send them out in something so old,” the woman says in the video.

“Couldn’t you invest the state budget in trying to buy a new submarine? You’re playing with the lives of our people. Does someone have to die for things to change?”

Other family members have complained that the Argentinian navy responded too late.

“They took two days to accept help because they minimised the situation,” Federico Ibanez, the brother of 36-year-old submarine crew member Cristian Ibanez, told the Associated Press.

Mr Ibanez’s sister added: “I feel like authorities let too much time pass by and decisions were taken late.

“And yet, I still carry some hope.”

Frank Owen, of the Submarine Institute of Australia, said the crew could be waiting underwater due to dangerous sea conditions.

“We know it’s been really rough, so even though the Argentinian navy protocol is to surface, it makes no sense with 6-8m waves to be sitting on the surface,” he told news.com.au yesterday.

“If I was in that situation, I would be sitting on the bottom and waiting, doing everything I could to slow down my metabolism and eke out the life support mechanisms, reduce oxygen use and CO2 creation.”

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