The aircraft carrier 'Sao Paulo' is seen in February 1994, when it belonged to France and was known as the 'Foch'
The aircraft carrier 'Sao Paulo' is seen in February 1994, when it belonged to France and was known as the 'Foch' AFP

Brazil on Friday sank a decommissioned aircraft carrier, the Navy announced, despite environmental groups claiming the formerly French ship was packed with toxic materials.

The "planned and controlled sinking occurred late in the afternoon" on Friday, some 350 kilometers (220 miles) off the Brazilian coast in the Atlantic Ocean, in an area with an "approximate depth of 5,000 meters (16,000 feet)," the Navy said in a statement.

The decision to scuttle the six-decade-old Sao Paulo, announced Thursday, came after Brazilian authorities had tried in vain to find a port willing to welcome it.

Though defense officials said they would sink the vessel in the "safest area," environmentalists criticized the decision, saying the aircraft carrier contains tons of asbestos, heavy metals and other toxic materials that could leach into the water and pollute the marine food chain.

The Basel Action Network had called on Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- who took office last month vowing to reverse surging environmental destruction under far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro -- to immediately halt the "dangerous" plan.

The group issued a joint statement with Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd on Friday, accusing Brazil of having violated "three international treaties" on the environment by sinking the ship, which the NGOs said could cause "incalculable" damage to marine life and coastal communities.

Other "environmentally responsible measures could have been adopted, but once again, the importance of protecting the oceans, which are vital for the life of the planet, was treated with negligence," said Leandro Ramos, director of programs for Greenpeace Brazil.

Brazilian authorities said it was better to sink the ship on purpose rather than allow it to sink spontaneously on its own.

The Navy insisted it had chosen a spot for sinking that considered "the security of navigation and the environment" and "the mitigation of the impacts on public health, fishing activities and ecosystems."

A judge overruled a last-minute legal bid to stop the operation, saying in his decision that an unplanned sinking could be even worse for the environment or pose a danger to crews, the G1 news outlet reported.

He called the situation "tragic and regrettable," according to G1.

Built in the late 1950s in France, whose navy sailed it for 37 years as the Foch, the aircraft carrier earned a place in 20th-century naval history.

It took part in France's first nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1960s, and deployments in Africa, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia from the 1970s to 1990s.

Brazil bought the 266-meter (873-foot) aircraft carrier for $12 million in 2000.

A fire broke out on board in 2005, accelerating the aging ship's decline.

Last year, Brazil authorized Turkish firm Sok Denizcilik to dismantle the Sao Paulo for scrap metal.

But in August, just as a tugboat was about to tow it into the Mediterranean Sea, Turkish environmental authorities blocked the plan.

Brazil then brought the aircraft carrier back but did not allow it into port, citing the "high risk" to the environment.