India’s Coast Guard tracked the Pakistani boat for 18 hours before its ship closed in with 23 personnel on board, one of whom shot video and photos of the drama that unfolded 365 km off Porbandar on New Year’s Eve with the foreign vessel finally going up in flames and sinking without a trace, a top Coast Guard official told The Indian Express.
Shots were also fired from a Light Machine Gun (LMG) onboard ICGS Rajratan to warn the crew of the Pakistani vessel and prevent them from fleeing to international waters, said the official.
He added that the boat was carrying two jerrycans which may probably have contained fuel for the 25m-long Pakistani boat that had a tank capacity of about 200 litres.
Any debris from the Pakistani vessel was “beyond recovery”, the official said, as the depth of the sea at that point was 2,350 metres. Yet, he added, the Coast Guard ship searched a 100 sq mile area for 72 hours, hoping to retrieve the bodies of the four crew members who were spotted on the Pakistani boat, before returning to its base.
Another Coast Guard ship, ICGS Samudra Prahari, will continue to scan the area for “at least one more day”, the official said.
“The boat was 9-10 nautical miles inside the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and was in touch with the Pakistani maritime agency. It was manoeuvreing at about 12 nautical miles per hour and there was a possibility that it would cross over to the Pakistani side, which meant that we would not be able to nab it. With so many resources, we had to nab it under any circumstances,” the Coast Guard official said.
According to the official, two Dornier aircraft from their station in Porbandar flew five overlapping sorties —- the first three for four hours, one for five hours and another for four hours — totalling 21 hours in the air.
Narrating the sequence of events, the senior official said that the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) first passed on information about the suspect boat to the Coast Guard at 7.34 am on December 31. The Coast Guard replied, asking the agency to pass on the information to the Navy, he added. The Navy, however, reportedly chose not to initiate action.
“While our first Dornier aircraft confirmed the presence of an ‘entity’, the second sortie confirmed that it had moved 5-6 nautical miles. It kept moving across a small area on our side of the IMBL,” the senior Coast Guard official said.
Then, he added, information was received about another boat 45-50 nautical miles on the Pakistani side of IMBL. And, intercepts of communication between a Pakistani agency and the second boat indicated that “it had delivered some consignment to the first fishing boat and was returning as it had a hole,” the official said. “The Dornier did not cross the IMBL into the Pakistan side to locate the second boat,” he added.
Moving at about 40 nautical miles an hour, ICGS Rajratan took about eight hours to reach the coordinates shared by NTRO, the official said.
According to him, the inshore patrol vessel was equipped with weaponry, and advanced communication and navigational equipment. And, while ICGS Rajratan had a sanctioned crew strength of 31, it was manned this time by 23 personnel, including three officers. Two of the crew manned the wheel, four were in the engine room, one was busy plotting the course, one held the searchlight as the Pakistani boat had switched off its lights, one was on the radar and another was behind the LMG, the official said.
Another crew member was operating a camera, shooting video as ICGS Rajratan rolled and pitched on the dark waters, he added. “The crew fired LMG shots as a warning and to prevent the boat from crossing over to the other side of the IMBL,” the official said.
ICGS Rajratan maintained a distance of two nautical miles from the boat from 11.30 pm on December 31, when the ship first came across the Pakistani vessel, to 4 am on January 1, when the boat went up in flames, the official said.
“This was to avoid being fired upon by those in the boat,” he added. “We did not know if they had weapons. Even one person had been hit, that would have damaged the morale of our men.”
After the Pakistani boat sank, the first task for the Coast Guard was to “plot the area”, the senior official said. “A 10 mile by 10 mile square was calculated based on the speed of the water current and the wind speed. Starting from the outer line of the zone, ICGS Rajratan closed in on the centre and again moved outward. An extended search was carried out, including along the IMBL, but in vain,” the officer said.
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