BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina's defense chief expressed shame Wednesday after a Navy destroyer sank at its moorings, putting on display the declining fortunes of a once-proud fleet.
The ARA Trinidad led Argentina's 1982 sea war against Britain, but has long been mothballed and used for spare parts to sustain what's left of Argentina's Navy.
A Navy statement said that a pipe burst, flooding the ship below decks. Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli denied that cuts to the fleet's maintenance budget were to blame. He said negligence or "sabotage" were possible and demanded a complete investigation.
"When the president asks me, I'll be ashamed, frankly, to tell her that a boat sank while tied to the dock," Puricelli told Radio 10. "There has to be a well-founded reason for this."
Opposition congressmen blamed a decade of disinvestment in Argentina's military, and said the country is ill-equipped to defend its seas.
"That a boat sinks in port due to a lack of maintenance reveals the deterioration and abandonment of our fleet, vital to the defense of a sovereignty that our president never loses an opportunity to proclaim to the world, but which we are very far from being able to defend," Congressman Gustavo Ferrari said.
Ferrari presented a study last year concluding that Argentina's army, air force, coast guard and navy were all badly underfunded.
Several Navy ships have had trouble operating: the warship Espora was stuck in South Africa last year for lengthy repairs, and breakdowns kept the destroyer Argentina from completing a mission in Brazil. The icebreaker Almirante Irizar is still in repairs after a 2007 fire.
Puricelli acknowledged the delays, but said nearly $100 million has been spent on repairs.
Meanwhile, Argentina's 3,100-mile (4,989-kilometer) coastline is being protected by a fleet that has been reduced to three destroyers, two other warships, several patrol boats, two scientific vessels, an icebreaker and the Libertad, the tall ship used to train cadets that was detained for months in Africa last year as collateral for unpaid debts.
Congressman Julio Martinez said Wednesday that of a total of 70 navy ships, only 16 are in sailing condition, and even then only barely. He said increases in defense spending have gone to salaries, leaving little or nothing for maintenance or investment in hardware.
"It's hugely hypocritical to talk of sabotage when for 10 years the ship has been abandoned," Martinez told Argentina's Todo Noticias channel.
The Trinidad was mothballed only a few years after leading the ultimately unsuccessful occupation of the Falklands, which Argentines claim as the Islas Malvinas. Martinez said he, like most Argentines, has no desire to wage another war, "but if the country lacks defenses, and the British know that, they won't ever negotiate a peaceful resolution."