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70 killed in Chinese submarine accident

Beijing, May 2 (Reuters): An accident aboard a conventional Chinese submarine killed 70 officers and crew in one of the worst naval accidents in Communist China’s history, state media and military sources said today.

The accident, in Chinese territorial waters off its northeastern coast, was caused by mechanical problems during training, the official Xinhua news agency said. It did not elaborate but said the incident happened in recent days.

“Unfortunately, all 70 men and officers aboard the submarine died,” Xinhua said. The submarine has been towed to an unidentified port, the agency added. The terse report did not give a date or the class of the submarine, only identifying it as No 361. It was also unclear if the submarine crew sent an SOS.

Former President Jiang Zemin, still chairman of the Central Military Commission, sent his condolences to the families of officers and crew.

China has embarked on a decade-long campaign to modernise its armed forces, and defence planners are trying to draw lessons from incidents such as the loss of Russia’s nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000 which killed all 118 crew on board. “In the wake of the Kursk incident, the Chinese have become increasingly interested in submarine rescue,” said Robert Karniol, Jane’s Defence Weekly Asia Pacific editor. “They have been looking to improve their submarine rescue capability.”

“This is the worst naval accident in almost two decades,” one military source said.

The fact that state media reported the submarine accident at all was surprising, given the Chinese military tradition of operating behind shadowy state secrecy laws, analysts said.

“The strange thing is Xinhua released anything at all,” said a Western diplomat. “Usually state media are silent on such incidents. They do not talk about it. The transparency was highly unusual.”

The accident, one of the most deadly for China’s navy since the Communists took power in 1949, put a spotlight on the shortcomings of the country’s outmoded submarine forces, which Beijing is trying to upgrade to help build up its ability to retake rival Taiwan. China’s new leaders have been gingerly prodding the media to report more openly on disasters.

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