Days before the NIA zeroed in on the owner of the Maruti car that was used to target a convoy in Pulwama killing 40 CRPF men on February 14, the agency and a team of experts from Maruti had hit a wall.
They had concluded that the car was manufactured in 2011 and after analysing parts of the car recovered from the blast site, whittled the number of vehicles to sift through to 2,500. On February 20, an NIA team was sent back to Pulwama to scan a radius of 200 metres around the attack site with metal detectors. The result: Investigators found the car’s key.
Hours later, the team reached the first owner of the Maruti Eeco and soon announced that Anantnag resident and Jaish recruit Sajjad Bhat had bought the car ten days before the attack.
On February 14, at around 3.30 pm a red Maruti Eeco car driven by alleged Jaish operative Adil Ahmed Dar sped alongside the CRPF convoy on the Jammu-Srinagar highway at Lethpora in Pulwama. Moments later it exploded near a bus killing 40 CRPF men. The impact of the blast was such that the bus had been reduced to a heap of mangled metal and the car had almost disappeared.
NIA investigators along with Jammu and Kashmir police and forensic experts scanned the site for days to gather clues on the owner of the vehicle. In the first few days, they only managed to retrieve the bumper of the car, parts of its shock absorber that carried a number and parts of a 25-litre jerry can that is suspected to have been used to pack 30 kg of RDX.
With these parts, the NIA took a team of Maruti engineers to Pulwama to determine the manufacturing year and date of the car and the lot it belonged to. Engineers concluded that the car was manufactured in 2011, as reported by The Indian Express on February 23.
The NIA then had 2,500 cars to sift through. “We had an inkling by then on probable owners. But it was still going to take weeks to reach the real owner with absolute certainty through the normal process,” said an NIA investigator.
Then, the NIA went back to Pulwama. “We realised that given the impact of the blast, the debris may not be limited to the highway and may have been thrown into adjacent areas. So we decided to scan a radius of 200 metres with metal detectors and we found the keys of the car,” said the officer.
“The car keys along with chassis number helped identify the vehicle identification number (VIN) that has 19 letters and is unique to every car. The alphanumeric code, in this case, helped track the first owner. Car companies usually split the month and year of manufacturing into English letters and with their help, the NIA was able to establish the chain of ownership,” said a source.
According to NIA sources, Bhat (22) had purchased the car only 10 days before the attack and so is suspected to have purchased it for precisely the purpose of the attack. There was also a mediator in the car sale deal who is currently being questioned by NIA.
Bhat, sources said, has been associated with militant groups in the Valley for the past two years. Investigators are trying to ascertain when did he come in contact with JeM and Dar. He has been absconding since NIA raided his house on February 23.