Twenty one years after two torpedoes fired by a British submarine sunk the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano the matter appears to be as polemical now as it was at the time, that is, judging by the different arguments put forward at a press conference held to wrap up a National Geographic Channel expedition to locate the site of the sunken warship.
Speaking at a press conference this morning that brought together expedition leader Curt Newport, National Geographic representative Richard Green, National Geographic Vice President Kim McKay and Captains Luis Galazi and Carlos Castro Madero of the Argentine Navy, internationally renowned underwater search and recovery expert Curt Newport said the expedition was well worthwhile despite the fact that the wreckage had not been located.
"Expeditions like this are never easy and our operation here was no exception" he explained providing abundant data on the technical aspects of this unprecedented expedition in which an area of approximately 300 square kms was carefully searched using an advanced side-scan sonar.
On 2 May 1982, a month into the Falklands War, British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror sunk the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano with two torpedoes killing 323 Argentine servicemen.
In a rescue operation which has been hailed as one of the most remarkable carried out in such adverse conditions the ship's Captain Hector Bonzo was able to save the lives of the 770 survivors in appalling weather.
The expedition, which spent two weeks at sea some 100 kms off the coast of Tierra del Fuego aboard the Seacor Lenga research vessel, hoped to pinpoint the wreckage and film it for a forthcoming National Geographic documentary on the sinking of the vessel. Due to bad weather which halved the working time, and after carrying an extensive search over some 300 square kms in the area where the Belgrano was thought to have down according to the combined information of the Royal and Argentine navies, the expedition was called off on Saturday.
The expedition was duly authorised by the Argentine authorities and the two Argentine Navy officers - both veterans of the Belgrano ? who were aboard the Seacor Lenga throughout the expedition. Galazi, former second in command of the Belgrano at the time it was sunk, was accompanied by Castro Madero, who served on the stricken cruiser as a Lieutenant Commander and who the Argentine Navy appointed as its overseer for this expedition.
While the press conference was orderly throughout it became clear in the closing part that there were people who disagreed the expedition. Representatives of the Families Commission who group the next of kin of the 649 Argentines killed during the 1982 conflict, repeatedly queried the panel on details of the expedition. Among the questions seeking answers were whether the Argentine Navy had received any monies from National Geographic for authorising the expedition or whether a request had been made to bring up a piece of the stricken vessel to be used as an exhibit salvaged from the Belgrano.
National Geographic vice president Kim McKay responded indicating that neither request had been made adding that it was a long standing National Geographic policy to "respect the wishes of the host nation."
Another representative of they Families Commission enquired whether the panel believed the sinking of the Belgrano had been a "an act of war or a war crime." Again McKay made it clear that "National Geographic does not make political statements."
Newport added that he had no knowledge that the expedition had led the Families Commission to seek a court injunction to prevent the war grave being tampered with. The expedition leader repeatedly added that everyone involved realised that searching for the remains of the Belgrano is "emotionally very significant for many Argentines."
The press conference itself largely focussed on the many positive aspects of the expedition, which included bringing together the two Belgrano veterans with two former HMS Conqueror crewmembers. Royal Navy sonar and torpedo specialists, Kevin Nicholls and Martyn Brown formerly crew members of the nuclear hunter killer submarine HMS Conqueror which sunk Argentina's second largest warship also took part in the two week expedition.
Both Galazi and Castro Madero agreed that there had been no animosity between the former adversaries and that when the time came to carry out a service in remembrance of those who died all four men participated and were equally touched by the moving ceremony.
Twenty one years after the sinking of the Belgrano, the former USS Phoenix which had survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the circumstances surrounding this incident still arises strong passions. Galazi and Castro Madero hold the long-standing Argentine Navy view that it was an act of war. "What do you think we would have done if the roles had been reversed in 1982?" Galazi retorted when asked his opinion on the matter.
Many veterans and next-of-kin still hold the view that it was as war crime and that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher should be taken before an International War Crimes Tribunal to face criminal charges.
While the debate lingers on the National Geographic said it had no immediate plans to carry out a new search for the Belgrano yet, although it of course would be evaluating the possibilities in the light of the new evidence uncovered during this expedition. Although he strongly defended the decision to carry out the expedition "we came here for good reasons" an understandably frustrated Curt Newport summed up his own feelings saying " this expedition will haunt me for a long time."
Over a post conference cup of coffee Galazi reflected that in a way the Belgrano had once again defied Fate by not making an appearance for this extremely expensive project ? costs surpassing the half a million US dollars so far. On the other hand he pondered "I am not so sure I truly wanted to see the wreckage of my ship. This way I will be able to live with the memory of the Belgrano as she was. A fine vessel which served its country well."
While the experts now scrutinise the evidence to try to determine where the Belgrano now lies four kms under the South Atlantic waters, we can remain assured that the controversy surrounding the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano is unlikely to go away. In the words of one veteran Falklands/Malvinas analyst, "the controversy surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano will live on long after the dispute of sovereignty is finally solved."
Nicholas Tozer (MP) Buenos Aires