'Titanic' team sets sail to find the 'General Belgrano'

For more than two decades the General Belgrano has languished 14,000ft below the surface of the South Atlantic, a rusting monument to the most notorious incident of the Falklands War.

Sunk by a British submarine on 2 May 1982, the demise of the Argentinian battleship remains the subject of controversy to this day. Should Margaret Thatcher have condemned to death 320 sailors by ordering the sinking of a vessel outside the exclusion zone imposed by the British while it was said to have been sailing away from the Falklands?

Tomorrow, an American film team will set out from Argentinato locate the wreck, a task that John Bredar, the executive producer of the film for the National Geographic channel, says is "like standing on top of the Empire State Building and trying to spot a pin on the street below".

The team is led by Curt Newport, the undersea explorer who helped broadcast live images from the wreck of the Titanic and helped to salvage the wreckage of TWA flight 800, the US space shuttle Challenger and Air India flight 182. Armed with data supplied by both the Argentinian and British navies about the precise location of Belgrano when it was hit by three torpedoes fired by HMS Conqueror, Mr Newport is understood to be "pretty confident" of finding the wreck. "We aren't sailing all this way on some vague mission because we don't know where it is," he said. "We're going to find it."

The sinking of the Belgrano was hugely controversial because Britain changed the rules of engagement specifically to allow HMS Conqueror to attack it. But even Argentina has long since accepted that it was a legitimate casualty of war.

Mr Bredar said: "We've been involved in films about locating the Titanic and the Bismarck. All these great ship stories are connected to great stories; and we have a tradition of finding them. It's part of the human story, and that's what we tell."

The finished film, which will be shown in May on Channel 4 in Britain and PBS in the United States, will include interviews with Argentinian survivors of the sinking. But the intention is not to revisit the Falklands War, said Mr Bredar.

"We're not going back for the geopolitical story, but the personal story, from the experience of the people who were there."

The National Geographic ships will set out in search of that story tomorrow from the port of Ushuaia in the far south of Argentina. Team members believe they have a 50 per cent chance of locating the wreck.

Most Argentinian veterans are said to support the project but it has run into opposition from one group, which filed for an injunction to prevent the mission on the ground that the film crew might desecrate what is in effect an unmarked grave.

Mr Bredar said: "In Argentine law, if you think someone is going to break the law, you can file an injunction to prevent it. The law states that you aren't allowed to disturb the site. But we aren't going to do that. We are going to treat it extremely sensitively."

A bigger obstacle than the courts is likely to be the South Atlantic weather: with autumn coming, the seas are getting rougher. And that means problems in locating that metaphorical pin on the seabed, said Mr Bredar.

"The way it's usually done is to put a sonar over the side, and lower it to within 300 or 400 feet of the seabed," he said. "Then you sail your ship up and down in 5km swaths – the guys call it 'mowing the lawn'. But if it's rough that makes it harder to get the gear over the side, and harder to maintain a steady course, so you can't pinpoint the possible objects on the seabed that might be the wreck."

Once the team believes it has found the wreck, a robot submarine with cameras will be sent down to investigate the objects further.

If the vessel is found, National Geographic will tell the world – and Captain Pedro Galazi, former second-in-command on the General Belgrano, will oversee the laying of a memorial plaque and medal presented by the Argentine Congress, as a tribute to the lives lost in the sinking. The Argentine Navy also plans to stage its own ceremony at sea to honour those who perished during the conflict.

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