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The Indonesian Cakra submarine KRI Nanggala sails out from the port in Cilegon, Banten, on Oct. 5, 2017.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Indonesia’s navy ships are intensely searching the waters where one of its submarines was last detected before it disappeared with 53 people on board, as neighbouring countries are set to join the complex operation.

The KRI Nanggala 402 was participating in a training exercise Wednesday when it missed a scheduled reporting call. Officials reported an oil slick and the smell of diesel fuel near the starting position of its last dive, about 96 kilometres north of the resort island of Bali.

Indonesia’s military said that five navy ships and a helicopter were taking part in the search while a hydro-oceanographic survey ship equipped with underwater detection capabilities is on its way to the site around the oil spills. Officials said they had not yet been linked to the missing submarine.

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Rescue ships from Singapore and Malaysia are expected to arrive Saturday. The military said Australia, the United States, Germany, France, Australia, Russia, India and Turkey have also offered assistance.

Some worry that the area may be too deep to locate or retrieve the ship, suggesting potential challenges facing the search operation.

“There looks like a terrible tragedy and it’s in a very deep part of waters, 700 or 800 metres deep potentially,” Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton told Sydney Radio 2GB .

“It makes it very difficult for the recovery or for location. But there’s some assistance that potentially we can apply and the Chief of the Defence Force (Angus Campbell) obviously reached out to his counterpart to say whatever Australia can provide, we will,” he said.

The submarine was carrying 49 crew members, its commander and three gunners, the Indonesian Defence Ministry said.

The navy said an electrical failure may have occurred during the dive, causing the submarine to lose control and become unable to undertake emergency procedures that would have allowed it to resurface. It said it believes the submarine sank to a depth of 600-700 metres.

The German-built submarine, which has been in service in Indonesia since 1981, was rehearsing for a missile-firing exercise that was to take place on Thursday. Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto and other military leaders were to attend.

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Indonesia currently has a fleet of five submarines and plans to operate at least eight by 2024.

The world’s largest archipelago nation with more than 17,000 islands has faced growing challenges to its maritime claims in recent years, including numerous incidents involving Chinese vessels near the Natuna islands.

Last year, President Joko Widodo reaffirmed the country’s sovereignty during a visit to the islands at the edge of the South China Sea, one of the busiest sea lanes where China is embroiled in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbours.

His visit came a week after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang insisted that Chinese fishermen are free to conduct activities in areas China claims as its traditional fishing grounds, which partly overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Geng’s statement drew indignation in Indonesia and prompted the military to increase its forces at the islands. Although China has been making such claims for years, recently dozens of Chinese fishing boats, escorted by coast guard vessels, have reportedly made more aggressive moves in the area and ignored Indonesian warnings to leave.

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