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‘Terror boat’: Questions linger

A day or two before December 31, a small fishing boat cast off into the Arabian Sea from the hamlet of Keti Bunder, 100 km from Karachi, along Pakistan’s National Highway 5. This forgotten corner of Pakistan, bordering the disputed boundary with India at Sir Creek, was to be a major Pakistani port until Gwadar displaced it from Islamabad’s radar.

In 2011, the Pakistani government promised to develop Keti Bunder into the city of Zulfikarabad, commemorating Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Nothing came of that either. Today, Keti Bunder is in the limelight as the launch pad for what the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) hints was an attempt to land explosives in India, for a terror strike in Gujarat or Maharashtra.

Piecing together information from an MoD release, as well as from intelligence sources, the boat’s mission was known before it set sail. National Technical Research Organisation intercepts revealed the Pakistani boat would transship its cargo of explosives to an Indian receiver, who would bring it ashore.

“According to the intelligence inputs received on December 31, a fishing boat from Keti Bunder near Karachi was planning some illicit transaction in Arabian Sea (sic),” says the MoD release.

The MoD does not mention the Indian Navy, the nodal agency for coastal security, entirely ignored the alert, assessing it related to low-grade smuggling, not terrorism. The Coast Guard, however, launched an operation.

“Based on the input, a Coast Guard Dornier aircraft undertook sea-air coordinated search and located the suspect fishing boat. Thereafter, the Coast Guard ship on patrol in the area was diverted and intercepted the unlit boat at about midnight, December 31, in position 365 km west-south west of Porbandar,” the MoD said.

The identified interception point is interesting, falling just three nautical miles within India’s exclusive economic zone which, according to the United Nations’ Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS), extends 200 nautical miles from the coast.

Even so, the Coast Guard intercepted the target vessel deep inside international waters. Indian law applies only within territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the coastal baseline, according to UNCLOS.

While this is a violation of international law, the principle has been disregarded twice earlier, when the Navy sank Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) vessels several hundred miles offshore, while these ferried LTTE members to India.

According to the MoD, the Coast Guard intercepted the boat just as the New Year dawned. With the suspicious boat refusing to stop to be checked, an hour-long “hot pursuit” ensued.

It remains unclear why the Coast Guard ship, capable of moving at 24-26 knots (44-48 km/hour) needed to pursue a slow-moving fishing boat for an hour. Nonetheless, it managed to stop it “after firing warning shots”.

At this point, according to the MoD, “the crew hid themselves in the below-deck compartment and set the boat on fire, which resulted in an explosion and major fire on the boat. Due to darkness, bad weather and strong winds, the boat and the persons on board could not be saved or recovered. The boat burnt and sank in the same position, in early hours of January 1”.

The Coast Guard says due to “bad weather and strong winds”, it was unable to recover any bodies or debris from the vessel. The only proof it has are photographs of a burning vessel.

“It is well nigh impossible for a boat to sink without leaving a trace. Debris doesn’t sink; it floats on the surface long after a vessel sinks,” says a three-star admiral.

The Indian Express has reported the weather around Porbandar has been mild since mid-December.

Naval officers tell Business Standard the yellow-red flames in the photographs suggest a typical diesel fuel fire. It would have been extremely difficult for the crew to set alight diesel, which does not burn easily. “It seems more likely that the warning shots hit the boat, setting the diesel alight,” says a retired admiral.

Questions also abound over the MoD’s contention that there was an explosion on board. In a fuel fire, any high explosive on board the vessel would simply have caught fire and burnt, not exploded.

An officer from a premier government agency with expertise in explosives explains a “detonator” is needed to trigger an explosion, creating a shock wave that causes the high explosive to detonate.

MoD officials claimed there were Pakistani communication intercepts, ordering the boat’s crew to “end the mission”. If that meant sinking the boat and committing suicide, why did the crew set the boat alight rather than detonating the explosives on board, choosing a slow and painful end over a swift explosion?

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar seems to recognise these lacunae. His complimentary message is less than fulsome, congratulating the Coast Guard for “averting a possible danger”.

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