Less than 48 hours after the Coast Guard destroyed a boat it suspected was ferrying explosives and terrorists from Pakistan into Indian waters, new evidence has begun to emerge that those on board might have been small-time liquor and diesel smugglers, ferrying bootleg cargo from the port of Gwadar to other fishing boats which were to have carried it into Karachi’s Keti Bandar harbour.
There is also a suggestion of use of disproportionate force since the fishing boat did not have an engine capable of outrunning Indian interceptors.
In a press release, the Ministry of Defence said that “as per the intelligence inputs received on 31st December, a fishing boat from Keti Bunder near Karachi was planning some illicit transaction in Arabian Sea”.
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Highly-placed government sources, however, said the intelligence had no link to terrorism, and made no reference to any threat to India. Instead, the sources said, the National Technical Research Organisation had intercepted mobile phone traffic involving small-time smugglers operating out of the fishing port of Keti Bandar, near Karachi.
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The report, the sources said, was issued directly to the Coast Guard and Navy by a mid-level NTRO official in violation of systems which mandate that any possible threat must be shared with all relevant services, including the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, and the Border Security Force.
Naval headquarters, the sources said, chose not to deploy ships in response to the intelligence, noting that it did not involve any threat to national security. However, the Coast Guard scrambled at least one interceptor from Porbandar, which was seen leaving dock by local fishermen late on the night of New Year’s Eve.
A senior Gujarat Police official said that the Coast Guard did not share the information with the state police which also has interceptor boats and coastal police stations meant to interdict coastal trafficking. Maharashtra Police officials also said they were given no information on a maritime operation underway on December 31, and expressed surprise since the state has several landing points and jetties that could be used by a boat carrying explosives to India’s western seaboard.
“You don’t need to be a genius to figure out we should have been told,” the official said, “because if the fishing boat was actually carrying explosives and managed to evade patrols on the seas, we should have been in position waiting for it.”
There is little clarity, so far, on the circumstances under which lethal force was used. In its press release, the Ministry said that a “hot pursuit continued for nearly one hour and the Coast Guard ship managed to stop the fishing boat after firing warning shots”.
“Four persons were seen on the boat who disregarded all warnings by the Coast Guard ship to stop and cooperate with investigation. Soon thereafter, the crew hid themselves in below-deck compartment and set the boat on fire, which resulted in explosion and major fire on the boat,” the release stated.
But three naval officers told The Indian Express it was inconceivable that Pakistani fishing boats — typically four-crew vessels, with an average length of less than 25 metres and equipped with 80-220 horsepower diesel engines, or smaller mechanised sailboats with 30 horsepower engines — could outrun the Coast Guard’s state-of-the-art ships.
Photographs released to media showed only fire damage to the ship’s hull, which would have blown apart had incendiary munitions, such as grenades or ammunition, been on board. Plastic explosive does not ordinarily explode in fires, and only chemical analysis can detect if it was on board. Ministry sources said the Coast Guard has not retrieved debris from the area for forensic analysis.
The Ministry’s press release also said that “due to darkness, bad weather and strong winds, the boat and persons on board could not be saved or recovered”.
However, open-source meteorological data for the Porbandar coast for the year-end shows conditions were almost ideal right through the second fortnight of December 15, 2014 to January 1, with cloudless skies and, on December 31-January 1. There were no bad-weather warnings for Indian fishermen in the region through this period.
Local fishermen said they had not seen the fire on December 31— raising the prospect that the incident may have occurred in international waters, some distance from the thousands of Indian and Pakistani fishing boats in the area.
“I’ve been talking to our people in the area”, said Narsibhai Jungi Jadeja, the head of the Porbandar fishing boat owners’ association, “and everyone insists they didn’t see a thing. That surprises me, because a fire at night would be visible many nautical miles away”.
“I just hope the government clears up the mystery over this, because if any Pakistani fishermen have been killed, the Pakistan navy will take vengeance on us,” he said.
Saeed Baloch, the head of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, said he was investigating the identity of the destroyed boat, but had no immediate details. “Hundreds of people go out to sea every day, and it is impossible for us to keep track of all of them. I just hope some poor people trying to make a living have not been killed,” he said.