By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th Jan 2015
A day or two before December 31, a small fishing boat cast off into the Arabian Sea from the hamlet of Keti Bunder, 100 kilometres 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 and, 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 events from an MoD press 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 tranship its cargo of explosives to an Indian receiver, who would bring it ashore.
“As per the intelligence inputs received on 31st December, 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 that the navy, the nodal agency for coastal security, entirely ignored the alert, assessing that it related to low-grade smuggling, not terrorism. The Coast Guard, however, launched an operation.
“Based on the input, Coast Guard Dornier aircraft undertook sea-air coordinated search and located the suspect fishing boat. Thereafter, the Coast Guard ship on patrol in area was diverted and intercepted the unlit boat at about midnight of 31st December in position 365 km West-South West of Porbandar”, says MoD.
The identified intercept point is interesting, falling just 3 nautical miles within India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which, according to the UN 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 violated international law, the principle has been disregarded twice earlier, when the navy sank Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) vessels several hundred miles offshore, whilst they ferried LTTE persons to India.
According to the MoD, the Coast Guard intercepted the unlit boat at midnight on 31st December, 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 kmph) needed to pursue a slow-moving fishing boat for an hour. Nonetheless, it managed to stop the boat “after firing warning shots”.
At this point, according to the MoD, “the crew hid themselves in below deck compartment and set the boat on fire, which resulted in explosion and major fire on the boat. Due to darkness, bad weather and strong winds, the boat and persons on board could not be saved or recovered. The boat burnt and sank in the same position, in early hours of 1st January.”
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 do not sink; they float on the surface long after a vessel sinks”, says a three-star admiral.
The Indian Express reports that 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 also claim there were Pakistani communication intercepts, ordering the fishing 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 recognize these lacunae. His complimentary message is less than fulsome, congratulating the Coast Guard for “averting a possible danger.”