Rescuers In India Try To Reach Sailors Trapped In Submarine

Eighteen sailors are feared trapped in a submarine that caught fire after a massive explosion in Mumbai. The smoldering ship is in its berth at a highly secured naval base, with only a portion visible above the surface. This incident comes as a setback for India, just as the country is trying to beef up its military.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In India, rescuers are trying to reach 18 sailors feared trapped in a submarine that caught fire after a massive explosion in Mumbai last night. The defense ministry said at least some of those on board have been killed. This smoldering sub is in its berth at a highly secured naval base, with only a portion visible above the surface.

This incident comes as a setback for India, just as the country is trying to beef up its military. And for more, we're joined by NPR's Julie McCarthy from New Delhi. Julie, good morning.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what do we know, at this point, about these rescue operations?

MCCARTHY: Well, navy divers have been deployed to inspect the site and to recover the personnel on board. The defense minister confirmed that there have been deaths among those sailors. But there are very few details. He would only say it's a tragedy; it's a loss for all of us.

You know, this disaster raises these memories of an explosion onboard this Russian nuclear submarine, that killed all 118 onboard, about 13 years ago. And in fact, David, this diesel-powered submarine was built in Russian shipyards for the Indian navy. It was delivered in 1997, and it was recently refurbished there.

GREENE: Well, do we have any sense for what caused this big explosion?

MCCARTHY: Well, the public relations officers of the Indian navy said it's an internal explosion. And when he was asked if terrorism could be involved, he repeated: It's an internal explosion. And he said, quote, "A non-naval person getting on the submarine is out of the question." He said the board of inquiry has been named, with a rear admiral leading it.

But David, you know, these television images from the scene showed this huge fireball over the navy dock where the sub was berthed. A huge fire then engulfed this vessel ship, and turned the night sky over Mumbai's dockyards this glowing red. And in a city that was besieged by Pakistani militants in 2008, there is a constant dread of terror attacks. But defense experts are saying it's highly improbable that sabotage could have been involved in this submarine disaster.

GREENE: Well, as they try to figure out exactly what happened there, let's talk about the larger context here, Julie. I mean, this seems like a setback for a country that really has been trying to increase its military might.

MCCARTHY: Well, yes. The loss of this sub is being described as a major setback. In fact, it's the worst on an Indian submarine. The Indian navy now has only 14 submarines. And this disaster puts a damper, David, on a week when India, with great fanfare, had launched its first homegrown aircraft carrier. India has been modernizing its fleet, as you mentioned. And defense analysts say it's spurred by its rivalry with China, that's rapidly expanding its sea power.

GREENE: And there's also been news about an old rivalry, India's rivalry with Pakistan, that's been on the boil this week. I mean, there's been ongoing fighting in the disputed region of Kashmir for days now. How significant is that?

MCCARTHY: Well, these tensions are very significant. In fact, the tensions along the line of control, this de facto border, are described as the worst since a cease-fire agreement was signed in 2003. The tripwire was the killing last week of five Indian soldiers near the border. Pakistan denied any cease-fire violations, but things have escalated very rapidly.

India's opposition lambasted the government for even considering talks with the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, next month at the U.N. And last night, Pakistan's National Assembly unanimously slammed what it called unprovoked aggression along the border. But David, we have to remember, this is Kashmir. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over it. So it's always a very impassioned place, and freighted with dangers.

GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Julie McCarthy, joining us from New Delhi. Julie, thanks a lot.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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