updated 4/11/2007 8:58:53 AM ET 2007-04-11T12:58:53

The Argentine navy’s flagship icebreaker caught fire in South Atlantic waters off Patagonia, but all of its 296 crew members were safely evacuated, the armed forces high command said Wednesday.

Fire broke out in a generator area of the Almirante Irizar late Tuesday off Puerto Madryn in southern Argentina while returning to its base in Buenos Aires, a communique said.

The accident occurred some 930 miles south of the Argentine capital, and Capt. Guillermo Tarapow ordered the crew to abandon ship in 24 lifeboats when flames became uncontrollable, the statement said.

All were safely picked up hours later by an oil tanker and a fishing vessel that rushed to the area, in chilly South Atlantic waters approximately 40 miles off Puerto Madryn.

The statement did not say what caused the fire and did not report any injuries.

The Almirante Irizar was acquired by the Argentine navy in 1978 and has played key roles in transporting military personnel and scientists to and from bases that Argentina operates in Antarctica. It also has been involved in rescue other missions in the region.

The high command said the ship was sailing home from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina, some 1,515 miles south of the capital.

Members of all major armed forces branches were aboard, the statement said, adding it had been originally expected back Thursday in the capital. Local reports said the ship was bringing back military personnel from Antarctica.

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