Little evidence of ‘terror’ link, those on board may have been petty smugglers, say Indian media reports
Less than 48 hours after the Indian Coast Guard destroyed a boat it suspected was ferrying explosives and terrorists from Pakistan into Indian waters, new evidence has begun to emerge that those on board might have been small-time liquor and diesel smugglers, ferrying bootleg cargo from Gwadar port to other fishing boats which would have carried it into Karachi’s Keti Bandar harbour, stated a report in The Indian Express on Saturday.
There are also reports of use of “disproportionate force” since the fishing boat did not have an engine capable of out-running Indian interceptors.
A press release by the Indian Ministry of Defence said that “as per the intelligence inputs received on December 31, a fishing boat from Keti Bunder near Karachi was planning some illicit transaction in the Arabian Sea”.
According to the Indian news outfit, highly-placed sources in the Indian government said the intelligence had no link to terrorism, and made no reference to any threat to India. Instead, the sources said, the (Indian) National Technical Research Organisation had intercepted mobile phone traffic involving small-time smugglers operating out of the fishing port of Keti Bandar, near Karachi.
The report, the sources said, was issued directly to the Indian Coast Guard and Navy by a mid-level NTRO official in violation of systems which mandate that any possible threat must be shared with all relevant services, including the (Indian) Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and the Border Security Force.
Indian Naval headquarters, the sources said, chose not to deploy ships in response to the intelligence, noting that it did not involve any threat to national security. However, the Indian Coast Guard scrambled at least one interceptor from Porbandar, which was seen leaving dock by local fishermen late on New Year’s Eve.
A senior Gujarat Police official reportedly said that the Indian Coast Guard did not share the information with the state police which also has interceptor boats and coastal police stations meant to interdict coastal trafficking. Maharashtra Police officials also reportedly said they were given no information on a maritime operation underway on December 31, and expressed surprise since the state has several landing points and jetties that could be used by a boat carrying explosives to India’s western seaboard.
Three Indian naval officers told The Indian Express it was inconceivable that Pakistani fishing boats — typically four-crew vessels, with an average length of less than 25 metres and equipped with 80-220 horsepower diesel engines, or smaller mechanised sailboats with 30 horsepower engines — could outrun the Indian Coast Guard’s state-of-the-art ships.
Photographs released to media showed only fire damage to the ship’s hull, which would have blown apart had incendiary munitions, such as grenades or ammunition, been on board. Plastic explosive does not ordinarily explode in fires, and only chemical analysis can detect if it was on board. Indian Defence Ministry sources reportedly said the Coast Guard has not retrieved debris from the area for forensic analysis.
The ministry’s press release also said that “due to darkness, bad weather and strong winds, the boat and people on board could not be saved or recovered”.
However, open-source meteorological data for the Porbandar coast for the year-end shows conditions were almost ideal and there were no bad weather warnings for Indian fishermen in the region in the last fortnight of December 2014.
“I’ve been talking to our people in the area”, said Narsibhai Jungi Jadeja who heads the Porbandar Fishing Boat Owners’ Association, “and everyone insists they didn’t see a thing. That surprises me, because a fire at night would be visible many nautical miles away”.
“I just hope the government clears up the mystery over this, because if any Pakistani fishermen have been killed, the Pakistan navy will take vengeance on us,” he reportedly added.
Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum head Saeed Baloch said he was investigating the identity of the destroyed boat, but had no immediate details. “Hundreds of people go out to sea every day, and it is impossible for us to keep track of all of them. I just hope some poor people trying to make a living have not been killed,” he said.