(Update: The Indian Navy says it fears all 18 sailors missing on the stricken submarine are dead. The cause of the explosion is being investigated and all possibilities, including sabotage, are being considered.)
(CNSNews.com) – A massive, unexplained early-morning explosion and fire crippled an Indian Navy submarine berthed in a secured dockyard in Mumbai on Wednesday, and authorities were trying to trace at least 18 personnel believed to have been onboard.
Defense Minister A.K. Antony said some sailors were feared dead.
Port and city firefighters brought the blaze under control, but the navy said in a statement that “due to as yet unknown damage suffered as a result of the explosion, the submarine has submerged at her berth with only a portion visible above the surface.”
“Efforts are on to ascertain the safety of the personnel and salvage of the submarine,” it said. “A board of inquiry is being instituted to investigate into the causes of the accident.”
The INS Sindhurakshak, a Russian-built Kilo class diesel-electric submarine which carries a crew of 53 and was commissioned in 1997, completed an upgrade and refitting in Russia just months ago.
Before that upgrade a fire onboard the same vessel in 2010, blamed on a defective battery, left one sailor dead and injured two others.
India has 10 Kilo class submarines in its fleet, plus four other diesel-electric boats and two nuclear-powered ones – one leased from Russia, the other indigenously designed and built.
Official sources cited in local media said the blast appeared to have been located in the torpedo room.
While the cause of the explosion remains unknown, the timing sparked dark theories in social media forums, coming amid a spike in tensions between India and its longstanding foe, Pakistan, sparked by the killing of five Indian soldiers in a cross-border ambush in Kashmir last week.
A former naval admiral, Arun Prakash, told the English-language CNN-IBN that the possibility of sabotage was a “remote” one but should be explored.
India marks its 67th Independence Day on Thursday, one day after Pakistan does. The South Asian neighbors attained independence from Britain in 1947, with Pakistan carved out of Islamic majority areas of predominantly Hindu India.
Wednesday’s blast occurred two days after the Indian Navy launched its first home-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, which is scheduled to enter full service in 2018.
To date only the U.S., Russia, Britain and France have built aircraft carriers. India’s fellow Asian giant and rival, China, last year unveiled its first carrier, a Soviet-built ship bought from Ukraine several years ago and refurbished.