U.S. Navy SEAL reprimanded, demoted for posing with dead prisoner

U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher (R), with wife Andrea Gallagher, leaves court after being acquitted of most of the serious charges against him during his court-martial trial at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, California , U.S., July 2, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy SEAL platoon commander acquitted of murdering a captured Islamic State fighter but convicted of unlawfully posing for photos with his dead body was sentenced on Wednesday to a demotion in rank and pay.

The penalty imposed by a seven-member jury of U.S. Marines and Navy personnel spared the defendant, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, from any prison time beyond the nearly seven months he had already served in pre-trial custody.

The same jury found Gallagher not guilty on Tuesday of murder, attempted murder and other charges, including deliberately shooting at unarmed civilians and obstruction of justice. But he was found guilty of posing for unofficial pictures with a human casualty.

That offense, stemming from photos he and fellow SEAL members took with the corpse of the Iraqi prisoner whom Gallagher was acquitted of slaying, carries a maximum sentence of four months’ imprisonment.

Instead, he will receive a one-step demotion in his rank from chief petty officer to petty officer first class, presumably accompanied by a corresponding reduction in his pay. The sentence also carries a two-month forfeiture of his salary, a sum of nearly $5,400.

Still, the outcome of the court-martial, capped by a three-week trial on various war crimes charges, marked a significant legal victory for Gallagher, 40, who would have faced a possible life sentence had he been found guilty of murder or attempted murder.

(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego, additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

While focus is on North Korea, China continues South China Sea buildup: think tank

While focus is on North Korea, China continues South China Sea buildup: think tank

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – While attention in Asia has been distracted by the North Korean nuclear crisis in the past year, China has continued to install high-frequency radar and other facilities that can be used for military purposes on its man-made islands in the South China Sea, a U.S. think tank said on Thursday.

Chinese activity has involved work on facilities covering 72 acres (29 hectares) of the Spratly and Paracel islands, territory contested with several other Asian nations, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report cited satellite images.

The United States and its allies oppose China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea and their militarization, given concerns Beijing plans to use them to deny access to strategic routes.

“It’s completely normal for China to conduct peaceful construction and build essential defense equipment on its own sovereign territory,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press briefing on Friday, in response to a question about the report.

“We believe certain people who have ulterior motives are making mountains out of molehills and stirring up trouble.”

The report said that in the last several months China had constructed what appeared to be a new high-frequency radar array at the northern end of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys.

Subi Reef had seen tunnels completed that were likely for ammunition storage and another radar antenna array and radar domes, the report said.

Construction on Mischief Reef included underground storage for ammunition and hangars, missile shelters and radar arrays.

Smaller-scale work had continued in the Paracel Islands, including a new helipad and wind turbines on Tree Island and two large radar towers on Triton Island.

It said the latter were especially important as waters around Triton had been the scene of recent incidents between China and Vietnam and multiple U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations, which the U.S. navy has used to assert what it sees as its right to free passage in international waters.

Woody Island, China’s military and administrative headquarters in the South China Sea, saw two first-time air deployments “that hint at things to come at the three Spratly Island air bases farther south,” the report said.

At the end of October, the Chinese military released images showing J-11B fighters at Woody Island for exercises, while on Nov. 15, AMTI spotted what appeared to be Y-8 transport planes, a type that can be configured for electronic surveillance.

The Pentagon has conducted several patrols near Chinese-held South China Sea territory this year, even as it has sought China’s help in northeast Asia to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated a call for a “freeze” in China’s island building and said it was unacceptable to continue their militarization.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong in BEIJING; Editing by James Dalgleish)

South Korea, U.S. launch aerial drills amid North Korean warnings of nuclear war

The South Korean army's K-55 self-propelled artillery vehicles take part in a military exercise near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, November 29, 2017.

By Christine Kim and Philip Wen

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States and South Korea went ahead with large-scale joint aerial drills on Monday, a move North Korea had said would push the Korean peninsula to “the brink of nuclear war”, ignoring calls from Russia and China to call them off.

The drills come a week after North Korea said it had tested its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States as part of a weapons program that it has conducted in defiance of international sanctions and condemnation.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it was “regrettable” that all parties had not “grasped the window of opportunity” presented by two months of relative calm before the North’s most recent test.

China and Russia had proposed that the United States and South Korea stop major military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its weapons programs. Beijing formally calls the idea the “dual suspension” proposal.

The annual U.S.-South Korean drill, called Vigilant Ace, will run until Friday, with six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to be deployed among the more than 230 aircraft taking part.

North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country called U.S. President Donald Trump “insane” on Sunday and said the drills would “push the already acute situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war”.

F-35 fighters will also join the drills, which will include the largest number of 5th generation fighters ever to have taken part, according to a South Korea-based U.S. Air Force spokesman.

Around 12,000 U.S. service members, including from the Marines and Navy, will join South Korean troops. Aircraft taking part will be flown from eight U.S. and South Korean military installations.

South Korean media reports said B-1B Lancer bombers could join the exercise this week. The U.S. Air Force spokesman could not confirm the reports.

Trump said last week that additional major sanctions would be imposed on North Korea after Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile test.

Earlier last month, Trump put North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that allows the United States to impose more sanctions.

Russia has accused the United States of trying to provoke North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into “flying off the handle” over his missile program to hand Washington a pretext to destroy his country.

Speaking at a news briefing in Beijing, Wang said China consistently opposed any behavior that elevated tensions.

“And measures that don’t abide by or are outside the UN Security Council resolutions lack basis in international law and damage the rights of United Nations members,” Wang said when asked about the prospect of further U.S. sanctions against North Korea.

China’s Air Force said on Monday that its surveillance aircraft had in recent days conducted drills in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea to “improve combat-readiness and safeguard the country’s strategic interests”.

The aircraft took a flight path not previously flown to regions they had never previously operated in, and coordinated with fighter jets, alert aircraft and guided missile forces, spokesman Shen Jinke said, according to a post on the Air Force’s official microblog.

The joint exercises between South Korea and United States are designed to enhance readiness and operational capability and to ensure peace and security on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. military had said before the drills began.

The North’s KCNA state news agency, citing a foreign ministry spokesman, said on Saturday the Trump administration was “begging for nuclear war by staging an extremely dangerous nuclear gamble on the Korean peninsula”.

North Korea regularly uses its state media to threaten the United States and its allies.

North Korea has tested dozens of ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth and largest nuclear bomb test in September, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

It has said its weapons programs are a necessary defense against U.S. plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, denies any such intention.

 

 

(Reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL and Philip Wen in BEIJING; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)

 

Hope fades as search for Argentine submarine enters ninth day

By Walter Bianchi

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina (Reuters) – Hopes diminished that the 44 crew members on a Argentine submarine missing for nine days would be found alive after evidence pointed to the possibility that it had exploded and because it only had a seven-day supply of oxygen.

Crew members’ relatives who had been waiting for news at the submarine’s base in the city of Mar del Plata started going home late on Thursday, while the navy vowed to keep searching.

“At this point, the truth is I have no hope that they will come back,” Maria Villareal, mother of one crew member, told local television on Friday morning.

Some family members accused the navy of putting their loved ones at unnecessary risk by sending them out in a more than 30-year-old vessel that they suspected was not properly maintained, an accusation the navy has denied.

“They killed my brother,” a man leaving the base in a car shouted out to reporters. The older man driving the car was crying.

The submarine, called the San Juan, was launched in 1983 and underwent maintenance in 2008 in Argentina. The armed forces have had to face dwindling resources and lack of training since the end of a military dictatorship in the early 1980s.

“They did not tell us they were dead, but that is the logical conclusion,” Itati Leguizamon, wife of one of the missing crew members, told reporters.

A sound detected underwater on the morning of Nov. 15, around the time the San Juan sent its last signal and in the same area, was “consistent with an explosion,” navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said on Thursday.

The information about the possible explosion came from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization, an international body that runs a global network of listening posts designed to check for secret atomic blasts.

(Writing and additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Search for missing Argentine submarine reaches ‘critical phase’

Search for missing Argentine submarine reaches 'critical phase'

By Walter Bianchi and Nicolás Misculin

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – The search for an Argentine navy submarine missing in the South Atlantic for one week reached a “critical phase” on Wednesday as the 44 crew on board could be running low on oxygen, a navy spokesman said.

Dozens of planes and boats were searching for the ARA San Juan. Favorable weather meant boats could cover a greater area after being hampered by strong winds and high waves for much of the past few days, although poor weather was expected to return on Thursday, navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said.

If the German-built submarine had sunk or was otherwise unable to rise to the surface since it gave its last location on Nov. 15, it would be using up the last of its seven-day oxygen supply.

“We are in the critical phase…particularly with respect to oxygen,” Balbi told reporters. “There has been no contact with anything that could be the San Juan submarine.”

Around 30 boats and planes and 4,000 people from Argentina, the United States, Britain, Chile and Brazil have joined the search for the submarine, which last transmitted its location about 300 miles (480 km) from the coast.

Planes have covered some 500,000 square kilometers (190,000 square miles) of the ocean surface, but much of the area has not yet been scoured by the boats.

Several possible signals, including sounds and flares, that have been detected have turned out to be false alarms. Overnight, a British ship reported observing three orange and white flares, but they did not come from the vessel, Balbi said.

The submarine was launched in 1983 and underwent maintenance in 2008 in Argentina. It was en route from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to the coastal city of Mar del Plata, some 250 miles (400 km) south of Buenos Aires, when it reported an electrical malfunction shortly before disappearing last week.

Relatives of the crew members have been gathered at a naval base in Mar del Plata, where the search is being coordinated.

“We came today because we had hope that they had returned,” Elena Alfaro, the sister of crew member and radar expert Cristian Ibanez, told Reuters, in tears. “It is incomprehensible that so much time has passed. We are in pain.”

(Additional reporting by Juliana Castilla; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Mexico races to save 12-year-old girl as quake toll hits 237

Rescue workers and Mexican soldiers take part in a rescue operation at a collapsed building after an earthquake at the Obrera neighborhood in Mexico City, Mexico September 20, 2017.

By Daniel Trotta and Adriana Barrera

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Rescuers labored against the odds as dawn broke on Thursday to save a 12-year-old schoolgirl and other possible survivors trapped beneath crumpled buildings in central Mexico following the country’s deadliest earthquake in 32 years.

More than 50 survivors have been plucked from several disaster sites in Mexico City since Tuesday afternoon’s 7.1-magnitude quake, leading to impassioned choruses of “Yes we can!” from the first responders, volunteers and spectators gathered around the ruins.

At least 237 others have died and 1,900 were injured.

As the chance of survival diminished with each passing hour, officials vowed to continue with search-and-rescue efforts such as the one at a collapsed school in the south of the capital. At the site, Navy-led rescuers have communicated with the 12-year-old girl, but were still unable to dig her free.

Eleven other children were rescued from the Enrique Rebsamen School, where students are aged roughly six to 15. Twenty-one children and four adults there were killed.

Rescuers had earlier seen a hand protruding from the debris and the girl wiggled her fingers when asked if she was still alive, according to broadcaster Televisa, whose cameras had special access to the scene to provide nonstop live coverage.

But some 15 hours into the effort, Admiral Jose Luis Vergara said rescuers could not pinpoint the location of the girl, identified only as Frida Sofia.

“There’s a girl alive in there, we’re pretty sure of that, but we still don’t know how to get to her,” Vergara told Televisa.

“The hours that have passed complicate the chances of finding alive or in good health the person who might be trapped,” he said.

 

RESCUE EFFORT

As Vergara spoke, a human chain of hard-hatted rescuers removed a large chunk of concrete from the floodlit scene.

Rescuers periodically demanded silence from bystanders to allow them to hear any calls for help.

As with other disaster sites throughout central Mexico, officials have not employed heavy-lifting equipment for fear of crushing survivors. Some 52 buildings collapsed in Mexico City alone and more in the surrounding states.

Throughout the capital, crews were joined by volunteers and bystanders who used dogs, cameras, motion detectors and heat-seeking equipment to detect victims who may still be alive.

Thousands of people have donated food, water, medicine, blankets and other basic items to help relief efforts. Companies provided free services and restaurants delivered food to shelters where thousands of people have sought refuge after their homes were damaged.

“Faced with the force of nature, we are all vulnerable and that is why we all unite when it comes to saving a life or helping a victim,” said President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has declared three days of national mourning. “If anything distinguishes Mexicans, it is our generosity and fraternity.”

Pena Nieto said the priority was to reestablish basic services, conduct a census of damaged structures and rebuild.

The extensive damage to many buildings, some of them relatively new, has raised questions over construction standards that were supposed to have improved in the wake of a devastating 1985 quake.

Members of a rescue team hold a fellow rescuer from the Topos volunteer search and rescue group by his feet during the search for students at the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico, September 21, 2017.

Members of a rescue team hold a fellow rescuer from the Topos volunteer search and rescue group by his feet during the search for students at the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

AID ARRIVES

The quake killed 102 people in Mexico City and the remaining 135 from five surrounding states, officials said on Wednesday.

At least nine Latin American countries pledged search-and-rescue teams or technical assistance, as did the United States, Spain, Japan and Israel, and crews from Panama and El Salvador were already on the job.

The Panamanian team of 32 rescue workers dressed in orange jumpsuits and helmets and two dogs arrived with seven days’ worth of food, water and supplies and prepared to work around the clock, said Cesar Lange, leader of the Panamanian Civil Protection unit.

Leading the volunteer rescue efforts were Mexico City’s own ‘mole’ rescue workers, a search group formed in the wake of the 1985 quake and renowned for their fearless tunneling into damaged buildings to save survivors in disasters around the globe.

Tuesday’s temblor came on the anniversary of the 1985 quake that killed thousands and still resonates in Mexico. Annual Sept. 19 earthquake drills were being held a few hours before the nation got rocked once again.

The quake struck around 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Mexico City on Tuesday afternoon, shattering glass, shearing off the sides of buildings and leaving others in dusty piles of destruction.

Its epicenter was a mere 31 km (32 miles) beneath the surface, sending major shockwaves through the metropolitan area of some 20 million people. Much of the capital is built on an ancient lake bed that trembles like jelly during a quake.

People accompany caskets, holding the bodies of victims who died in an earthquake, through the streets in Atzala, on the outskirts of Puebla, Mexico September 20, 2017.

People accompany caskets, holding the bodies of victims who died in an earthquake, through the streets in Atzala, on the outskirts of Puebla, Mexico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Imelda Medina

Some residents and volunteers voiced anger that emergency services and military were slow to arrive to poorer southern neighborhoods of the city, and that wealthier districts appeared prioritized.

Mexico was still recovering from another powerful quake less than two weeks ago that killed nearly 100 people in the south of the country.

Both Mexican earthquakes occurred along the Cocos tectonic plate, which skirts the western coast of Mexico and is slowly sliding beneath the North American plate.

 

 

 

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Bernadette Baum)

 

U.S. Navy recovers second body in search for sailors missing after collision

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain is seen after a collision. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S Navy and Marine Corps divers have recovered and identified a second body in the search for ten sailors missing after a collision between a guided-missile destroyer and merchant vessel near Singapore earlier this week, the U.S. Navy said on Friday.

The USS John S. McCain collided with the merchant tanker in waters near Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, which led to an international search-and-rescue operation for the missing sailors. The navy recovered the first body from inside the hull of the warship earlier this week.

“More divers and equipment arrived overnight to continue search and recovery operations for eight missing sailors inside flooded compartments of the ship,” the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in statement on its website.

On Thursday, the U.S. Navy suspended the wider search and rescue operation to focus recovery efforts on the damaged hull of the ship, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base.

The Navy has already released the names of all the sailors who were missing.

(Reporting by Sam Holmes; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. Navy suspends sea search efforts for missing USS McCain sailors

Royal Malaysian Navy personnel carry a body onto their ship during a search and rescue operation for survivors of the USS John McCain ship collision in Malaysian waters in this undated handout released August 22, 2017. Royal Malaysian Navy Handout via REUTERS

By Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy on Thursday suspended wider search and rescue operations for sailors missing after the warship USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel in waters near Singapore and Malaysia earlier this week.

A statement on the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s website confirmed the identities of one sailor killed and of nine sailors still missing following the collision.

U.S. Navy and Marine Corps divers will continue search-and-recovery efforts inside flooded sailors, the statement said.

“After more than 80 hours of multinational search efforts, the U.S. Navy suspended search and rescue efforts for missing USS John S. McCain sailors in an approximately 2,100-square mile area east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore,” it said.

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia had been looking for the missing sailors over an area of about 5,500 square kilometers around the crash site.

The U.S. Navy on Tuesday found remains of missing sailors inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the John S. McCain, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base.

Earlier on Thursday, the Navy said a medical examination of human remains found by the Malaysian navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site were not one of its missing sailors.

Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority said the multi-agency search and rescue operation was suspended from 9 p.m. local time on Thursday. Singapore will continue to support the U.S. Navy in their search on the warship, it said.

The pre-dawn collision on Monday was the fourth major accident for the U.S. Pacific Fleet this year and has prompted a review of its operations.

The Navy on Wednesday removed Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin from his post, citing “a loss of confidence in his ability to command” after the run of accidents. Aucoin had been due to step down next month. Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer takes command of the fleet.

This week, the U.S. Navy flagged plans for temporary and staggered halts in operations across its global fleet to allow staff to focus on safety.

On Wednesday, Seventh Fleet ships deployed at a facility in Yokosuka, Japan, participated in a one-day operational pause in which officers and crew underwent fresh risk management and communications training.

The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has about 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan; Writing by Sam Holmes; Editing by Robert Birsel/Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Navy relieves Seventh Fleet commander in wake of collisions in Asia

FILE PHOTO: Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, U.S. 7th Fleet Commander, speaks to media on the status of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald, damaged by colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, and the seven missing Fitzgerald crew members, at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File photo

By Phil Stewart and Tim Kelly

WASHINGTON/TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy on Wednesday said it had removed Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin after a series of collisions involving its warships in Asia as the search goes on for 10 sailors missing since the latest mishap.

Aucoin’s removal comes after a pre-dawn collision between a guided-missile destroyer and a merchant vessel east of Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, the fourth major incident in the U.S. Pacific Fleet this year.

“Admiral Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” the U.S. Navy said in a press release.

Swift, who traveled to Japan to relieve Aucoin, ordered his deputy Pacific Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer, to immediately take command of the powerful U.S. force.

Aucoin was due to step down next month, with Sawyer, a submariner by trade, already slated to succeed him. Aucoin came up through the Navy’s air wing as an F-14 navigator.

“I support Admiral Swift’s decision to bring in new leadership. The new Seventh Fleet Commander must help move his team forward, focusing efforts on safe and effective operations,” U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said in a statement.

The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has around 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

It operates over an area of 124 million square km (48 million square miles) from bases in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

TENSE TIMES

The accident involving the USS John S. McCain and the tanker Alnic MC in the Singapore Strait came at a tense time for the U.S. Navy in Asia.

This month, the John S. McCain sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, the latest “freedom of navigation” operation to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the contested waters.

An official Chinese newspaper said on Tuesday the U.S. navy’s latest collision shows it is becoming an increasing risk to shipping in Asia despite its claims of helping to protect freedom of navigation.

Also this month, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

“Losing another ship now is bad timing. It may raise concern over America’s defensive capabilities and it could send the wrong signal to North Korea and China,” a senior Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force officer said, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia is looking for the 10 U.S. sailors missing since Monday’s collision.

On Tuesday, U.S. Navy and Marine Divers found human remains inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the USS John S McCain, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. The Navy has not yet announced the identities of the bodies discovered.

The U.S. Navy is also working to identify a body found by the Malaysian navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site. Photos posted on the Twitter account of a Malaysian navy frigate on Wednesday showed crew carrying what appeared to be a body to a U.S. Navy helicopter.

The latest collision has already prompted a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in U.S. Navy operations.

The John S. McCain’s sister ship, the USS Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after colliding with a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven U.S. sailors were found in a flooded berthing area after that collision.

(Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO, writing by Sam Holmes and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Himani Sarkar)

U.S. divers find remains of missing sailors in hull of damaged destroyer

The damaged USS John McCain is docked next to USS America at Changi Naval Base in Singapore August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Calvin Wong

By Karishma Singh and Fathin Ungku

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. Navy and Marine Corps divers on Tuesday found some remains of missing sailors inside sections of a U.S. guided-missile destroyer that collided with a merchant vessel near Singapore, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet said.

The USS John S. McCain and the tanker Alnic MC collided on Monday while the U.S. ship was approaching Singapore on a routine port call. The impact tore a hole in the warship’s port side at the waterline, flooding compartments that included a crew sleeping area.

U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift said an international search-and-rescue operation had found some remains and that the wider search for 10 sailors missing from the accident would continue until all hope was exhausted.

“The divers were able to locate some remains in those sealed compartments during their search,” Swift told reporters at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base where the USS John S McCain is docked for damage assessment.

“Additionally, the Malaysian authorities have reported that they have located potential remains. They are working to confirm and identify those remains.”

He did not specify how many remains had been found.

The Malaysian navy said in a statement it had found a body eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site and it would transfer it to the U.S. Navy on Wednesday.

Swift also said Monday’s collision – the fourth major accident in the U.S. Pacific fleet this year – could not be viewed in isolation from other incidents and that investigations were seeking to find a “common cause at the root of these events”.

The John S. McCain’s sister ship, the Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after colliding with a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven U.S. sailors were found in a flooded berthing area after that collision.

The latest accident has already prompted a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in operations.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said to have sailors killed in two collisions this year was disconcerting.

“It’s just unacceptable and we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Pence told Fox News. “But right now our hearts are with the families of those that are lost and we honor them.”

Ships, aircraft and divers from an international search-and-rescue operation have been looking for the missing U.S. sailors to the east of Singapore and peninsula Malaysia, near where the accident happened.

Aircraft from the amphibious assault ship the USS America, which was in port at Changi Naval Base, joined the search.

Earlier on Tuesday, divers equipped with surface-supplied air rigs got into compartments in damaged parts of the USS John S McCain.

Immediate efforts by the ship’s crew after the collision on Monday were able to halt flooding into other parts of the hull, the Seventh Fleet said in a statement on its website.

CNN, citing unidentified U.S. Navy officials, said early indications suggested the collision was caused by a steering malfunction as the warship approached the Strait of Malacca. Swift said it was too early to draw conclusions about the cause and whether it was the result of human error.

Aircraft and vessels from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have been helping with the search.

HOLE IN HULL

Swift said the U.S. Navy was sending a team to assess the damage before making a decision whether to move the ship or place it in drydock.

Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority said it had deployed 250 personnel for the search-and-rescue effort over an expanded area of 2,620 square kilometers. The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said it had deployed more than 500.

Five U.S. sailors were injured in the accident, although the U.S. Navy said none of those injuries was life-threatening.

On Monday, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said there were no indications so far the collision was intentional or the result of cyber intrusion or sabotage.

“But review will consider all possibilities,” he said on Twitter.

Richardson said he was asking his fleet commanders worldwide for a one-to-two-day, staggered “operational pause” to discuss action to ensure safe and effective operations.

He also said a comprehensive review would examine the training of U.S. forces deployed to Japan. The U.S. Seventh Fleet is headquartered in Japan.

The accident comes at a tense time for the U.S. Navy in Asia. This month, the John S. McCain sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, the latest “freedom of navigation” operation to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the waters.

The state-run China Daily said in an editorial that increased activities by U.S. warships in Asia-Pacific were a growing risk to commercial shipping.

Also this month, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

(Writing by Sam Holmes; Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein in SINGAPORE and David Brunnstrom, David Alexander and Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)