Even as the patrol ship involved in the destruction of a Pakistani fishing boat on New Year’s Eve pulled into dock on Saturday, carrying evidence that investigators believe could resolve the growing controversy over the sinking, the Ministry of Defence is preparing for a full internal review of the intercepted satellite-phone communications that led up to the operation, official sources have told The Sunday Express.
The investigation, the sources said, is intended to address the growing controversy over whether the destroyed fishing boat was carrying explosives, and whether it had any connections with terrorist groups.
Footage from cameras on board the ICG Rajratan, which arrived at the Coast Guard station in Porbandar late in the evening, as well as audiotapes of satellite conversations between its crew and their ground station, are expected to provide a minute-by-minute of precisely what happened during the operation.
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Local residents at Porbandar harbour told The Sunday Express they had seen what appeared to be debris being unloaded from the Rajratan. It was unclear, however, whether the debris was from the destroyed fishing boat.
K S Sheoran, Inspector-General, North-West, of the Coast Guard, said that neither material evidence nor bodies of the crew had been recovered so far, because of poor weather. Sheoran, however, added that he was optimistic clues would be found.
The Coast Guard, Gujarat Police sources said, did not immediately provide either its officers or a visiting mid-level official from the Rajkot office of the Intelligence Bureau, access to the ship.
In Islamabad, Pakistani officials described India’s claims as a hoax, saying they had no information to suggest a boat had been destroyed.
Saeed Baloch, head of the Karachi-based Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, said “no fishing crews or boats are missing from Keti Bandar”, the port the Indian government has said the destroyed vessel originated from.
“We’re trying to establish if any crews are missing from elsewhere”, he said, “but it will take time, because thousands of vessels are at sea at any given time.”
“Especially if this boat was involved in smuggling or some such activity”, he said, “their families wouldn’t be expecting them back immediately, and certainly wouldn’t report them missing to the unions or authorities.”
Forensic studies of the debris could establish whether there were explosives on board, and how the fire that destroyed the fishing boat began. In a press release issued on Friday, the Ministry of Defence had said that the boat’s four crew started the fire. The press release also suggested the boat was carrying explosives.
However, 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. The flames also showed no signs of the white plumes characteristically associated with fires involving explosives.
“It’s quite hard to set diesel on fire,” a Naval forensics expert said. “So, investigators would want to take a close look at what might have set off the fire — which would, of course, have to include the possibility of firearms being used to target it.”
In addition to the forensic evidence, government sources said, the MoD has also asked the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) for logs and audiotape of intercepted Thuraya satellite-phone communications, on the basis of which it asked the Coast Guard and Navy to intercept the fishing boat.
In a December 31 message, the NTRO said it had picked up Thuraya phone communications between the crew of the fishing boat and their associates on land, but stated they pertained to illicit trafficking, not terrorism.
The conversation referred to valuable cargo being transferred.
For reasons that remain unclear, the intelligence was not immediately shared with Research and Analysis Wing or Intelligence Bureau until two days later, even though the NTRO has no mandate to analyse or evaluate intelligence —its domain being technical collection, not analysis or operations.
“Perhaps NTRO misinterpreted or mishandled the traffic it had,” an MoD official said.
Thuraya phone communications were intercepted by the NTRO between 2006 and 2008, but their use by terrorists largely ended after it became clear that India had the capacity to break into the network. In the years since, terrorist commanders have switched to encrypted Inmarsat4 and Inmarsat5 sets with frequency-hopping, or to secure VoIP systems.
Fishermen, however, continue to use the sets routinely — buying them cheaply in Pakistan, or at even lower prices in the UAE. Thuraya sets, though illegal in India, are widely used the world over, and are popular as they can tap into cellular networks where available.