A submarine with 18 sailors onboard was hit by explosions, caught fire and sank in a Mumbai military shipyard. The rescue is ongoing but all the men onboard are feared dead.
Rescuers were working to refloat the fully-armed INS Sindhurakshak after it went up in flames on Wednesday and sank. The vessel had only recently been returned following a major refit by its Russian manufacturer.
Defense ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar said late on Wednesday: "We have not got the bodies so we can't say they are dead. But we are fearing the worst."
Officials said that there had been no contact with the sailors since the explosions in the submarine's torpedo compartment, and the ensuing fire which lit up the sky above the base.
It was the Indian navy's worst accident since the sinking of a frigate by a Pakistani submarine in 1971. Defense Minister A.K. Antony called the explosion the "greatest tragedy in recent time."
In the traditional Independence Day speech in Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed regret over the incident: "The accident is all the more painful because the navy had recently achieved two major successes in the form of its first nuclear submarine, INS Arihant and the aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant," Singh said.
The Sindhurakshak returned in April from Russia after a two-and-a-half-year refit, overhaul and upgrade and had been certified for use by the Indian navy. Russian ship repair company Zvyozdochka said the blasts were unrelated to its repair work and that the submarine had been "in active use" and had logged 24,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) on three missions.
The 16-year-old Russian-made submarine had been hit by an explosion in 2010. One sailor died and two others were injured in that accident which was caused by a faulty battery valve that leaked hydrogen, causing an explosion in the vessel's battery compartment.
Navy spokesman Narendra Vispute said the cause of the explosions on Wednesday was being investigated.
The government has authorized the navy to have up to 24 conventional submarines, but it has just 14, including eight Russian Kilo-class and four German Type HDW209 vessels.
jm/ccp (AP, AFP)