Investigators in Karachi have identified the fishing boat destroyed on New Year’s Eve during an Indian Coast Guard operation as a vessel allegedly linked to a drug mafia based in Pakistan, highly-placed police sources said.
The sources told The Indian Express that the 25-foot vessel, named Qalandar, was captained by Yaqboob Baloch, a resident of the gang war-torn Lyari town in Karachi. They said that Pakistani counter-narcotics investigators believe the boat often carried contraband for the Balochistan-based drug cartel of Mir Yakub Bizenjo, a fugitive named by the US in 2009 as a leading player in the trans-border trade of narcotics.
When contacted, captain Baloch’s mother, Ayesha Bibi, told The Indian Express that she had heard “rumours” of the destruction of her son’s boat after it was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard. She added, however, that she had received no information that her son had been killed.
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“My son had nothing to do with terrorists,” she said, adding that her family belonged to the Zikri, or Mahdavi, sect that has been targeted by jihadists for their belief that the 15th century religious activist Muhammad Jaunpuri was the Imam Mehdi, the prophesied redeemer.
Intelligence sources said that a Pakistan Navy frigate, PNS Babur, had spotted the boat loitering close to Pakistan’s exclusive economic zone, some 200 nautical miles off the coast of Karachi.
The fishing boat, the sources said, slipped further south, likely to avoid being searched by Pakistan’s coastal authorities.
Authorities in Karachi have only been able to partially identify the three other crew members on the boat, currently tagged by their first names or aliases ? Yaseen, Ibrahim and “Dhobi”.
Saeed Baloch, head of the Pakistani Fisherfolk Federation, said it could be days or even weeks before the three could be fully identified. “Fishermen go out on long tours, and are often away for months on end,” he said. “Families will only report them missing when they have reason to suspect something has gone wrong.”
The boat, police sources said, had set out from the Balochistan coast near the port of Gwadar, likely carrying a cargo of dates, as well as cases of bootleg alcohol, allegedly brought in from the Gulf ? and a consignment of heroin.
Few details were immediately available on the crew, but one police source said the men are thought to have worked for multiple criminal groups, running alcohol, diesel and drugs allegedly from and to ports from Dubai to Karachi.
Ibrahim Baloch, a Karachi-based fishing industry agent, said, “Drugs and alcohol are sometimes smuggled with the knowledge of accomplices in coast guards… In some cases, Pakistani fishermen sell it to Indian fishermen, who take the cargo into their country.”
After the boat was destroyed approximately 365 km south-west off Porbandar, India’s National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) had said that it intercepted satellite phone conversations saying the boat’s handlers were planning an unspecified illicit operation involving a valuable cargo, and interpreted this to be terrorism-linked.
On December 31, the Indian Coast Guard said it had tracked the vessel using coordinates transmitted by the Thuraya satellite phone set of the crew.
After the boat was destroyed in controversial circumstances, the Defence Ministry said in a press release that “the Coast Guard ship managed to stop the fishing boat after firing warning shots.”
The release added, “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 a below-deck compartment and set the boat on fire, which resulted in explosion and major fire on the boat.”
The Indian Express had first reported on Saturday that Indian intelligence agencies had not established any terror link to the boat that blew up in suspicious circumstances. Forensic experts contacted by The Sunday Express noted that photographs of the burning boat showed its structure was intact, a fact inconsistent with the explosions burning munitions would normally set off.
Pakistani security sources, meanwhile, seemed sympathetic to the Indian operation. “I don’t blame the Indians with their Mumbai 26/11 experience… These looked to be petty criminals who were at a wrong place at a wrong time,” a source said.