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Search for sunken Falklands warship fails

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) -- Explorers failed to find Argentina's General Belgrano warship, torpedoed by Britain in the 1982 Falklands War and believed to be lying 14,000 feet (4,200 metres) deep in frigid Patagonian waters, the National Geographic Society said on Friday.

Thirty-foot (9-metre) seas and high winds hampered the National Geographic expedition vessel's search for the Belgrano, which sank with 323 Argentine sailors in the single biggest loss of life in the war.

Some of those sailors' families opposed the search for fear it could desecrate the deep-sea war grave, although the Argentine navy gave its backing.

Some 1,093 crew members were aboard the Belgrano when it was attacked on May 2, 1982, 100 nautical miles (180 km) off Argentina's southern coast, in the turning point of a war that claimed 1,000 lives, three-quarters of them Argentine.

"Expeditions such as this are never easy and our operation here was no exception. As with all things lost at sea, you never know exactly where they sank," expedition leader and American ocean explorer Curt Newport said in a statement.

The explorers, working with the Argentine navy, scoured 300 square miles (780 square km) of the south Atlantic after leaving the Patagonian port of Ushuaia in late February. They had planned to send an unmanned submarine to the ocean floor to film the wreck for a television documentary entitled "The Sinking of the Belgrano," to be aired in May.

The Washington-based society has sponsored expeditions that located the Titanic, the Bismarck, the Yorktown and dozens of ships lost at Guadalcanal in World War Two.

The sinking of the Belgrano ended hopes of a peace deal between Britain and Argentina. The conflict, sparked by Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands, long claimed by Buenos Aires, ended with a British victory, helping topple Argentina's military junta.

Many Argentines call the sinking a "war crime," arguing the former U.S. ship and Pearl Harbor survivor was outside a 200-mile (320-km) British-imposed exclusion zone and headed to port.

Finding the ship might have shed light on which way the hull was pointing when the British submarine HMS Conqueror fired the torpedoes at the pride of Argentina's fleet.

The British government has always argued the ship and its escorts posed a threat whatever their location.

In 2000, the European Court of Human Rights rejected a claim for compensation by relatives of Argentine sailors killed on the Belgrano, ruling it was outside legal time limits.

This week, some relatives of the dead won a temporary injunction against the National Geographic expedition, arguing the navy did not follow the law on national historic landmarks and a war tombs.

"The Argentine navy backed an expedition without consulting with a majority of the families of victims as the law requires," said Cesar Trejo, a veteran and spokesman for the Commission of Families of the Fallen in the Malvinas, as the islands are called by Argentina.

Veterans from both sides of the war and relatives of Belgrano victims accompanied the explorers, who had assured Argentina they would respect the war grave and lay a plaque on the ship if it were found.

The navy escort boats paid homage to the dead by throwing flowers into the ocean before turning back on Thursday night.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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