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Sunk Pakistani boat was no ordinary fishing vessel

January 05, 2015 18:50 IST

On available evidence, it is still not clear if India was the target or if the occupants on destroyed boat were assigned to carry out any terrorist attack. What is clear, however, is the boat was no ordinary fishing vessel, says Nitin Gokhale. 

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar's remark -- "the Coast Guard has done the right job at the right time," with reference to the sinking of a Pakistani boat off the Porbandar coast in the early hours of January 1 -- should set at rest all the speculation about the nature of the operation.

Speaking on the sidelines of a defence function on Monday, Parrikar said: "They (Coast Guard) reacted immediately, they got the air surveillance done on the boat for almost 12 to 14 hours, intercepted it as soon as possible and stopped it after a chase..."

Scotching all talk about the occupants on the boat being smugglers, the defence minister said: "Stationed at one position does not indicate any smuggling type of activity but some other kind of activity. We are not sure what was the other kind of activity. Secondly, smugglers don't keep in touch with the Pakistani maritime agency or their army or international contacts. The most important factor why I will classify them under suspected or probable terrorist is because they have committed harakiri. A normal boat even carrying some drugs can try and dispose of the drugs and surrender. No one is going to be killing himself unless you are motivated enough to do that... That they virtually committed harakiri indicates a suspected terror. Circumstantial evidence indicates what I am saying."

Parrikar's assertion backs the Coast Guard's operation fully and confirms  the sequence of events I have managed to put together after speaking to people in the know. The account suggests that the Coast Guard did what it is supposed to do: Take appropriate action against rogue elements after following all SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). This is what happened on December 31 and January 1.

(December 31, 2014) 0735 hrs: The National Technical Resource Organisation sends out a specific input marked to all those it is required to keep in the loop, giving exact lat-long (latitude-longitude) of a boat that had sailed from Keti Bunder near Karachi and was headed towards the Gujarat Coast. The input had a rough description of the boat too. The intelligence input was based on a communication interception that the NTRO had managed.

0855 hrs: COM-CG, Gujarat, the Coast Guard’s Gandhinagar-based regional HQ, received the details at 8.55 am from the Coast Guard HQ in Delhi.     

0935 hrs: A Dornier aircraft of the Coast Guard located at Porbander takes off for the first sortie. After about 90 minutes, it sights the boat, bobbing around in mid-sea roughly at the spot that the NTRO had indicated. The Dornier crew relays the information back to Porbander and Gandhinagar. After a 3.40 minute sortie, the Dornier returns to Porbander.

1235 hrs: Another Dornier aircraft is airborne even before the first one lands back. It keeps a hawk’s eye on the boat and sends back detailed description.

1330-1400 hrs: NTRO listens in on another three-way conversation between the boat and presumably their handlers based in Karachi (probably personnel of the Pakistani Maritime Security Agency) and someone based in Thailand. Occupants of the boat are heard telling their superiors, ‘we are waiting.’ The Coast Guard decides to keep the air surveillance going by sending a replacement for the second aircraft and also divert a ship, ICG Rajrattan, which was on a task in a different area.       

1730, 2030 and 2230 hrs: Coast Guard’s Dorniers are launched at these times to keep an eye on the boat which is neither fishing nor moving but is just hanging around.

2200 hrs: INS Rajrattan makes an RV (rendezvous) with the boat after travelling more than eight hours.

The crew tries to raise the boat and its occupants but the moment Rajrattan’s presence is noticed, the lights on the boat are switched off. The boat also tries to move away towards the International Maritime Boundary Line. 

2330 hrs: The Rajrattan, aware of the possibility of explosives and arms stored onboard the boat, keeps circling it which nevertheless continues its dash towards the IMBL. After about an hour of the cat and mouse game, the Coast Guard ship fires several warning shots. Perhaps finding no other alternative, the occupants onboard the boat decided to set it on fire. Several loud explosions occur and a massive fire breaks out on the boat. At least four men were spotted on the boat before it sank, a ministry of defence statement had said.

(January 1, 2015) 0430 hrs-0630 hrs: The boat gradually sinks even as Rajrattan stays in the vicinity to look for any survivors. 

Given that the terrorists in the 26/11 attacks had come into Mumbai via the sea, immediate parallels were sought to be drawn to that episode but on available evidence, it is still not clear if Mumbai was the target or if the occupants on the destroyed boat were assigned to carry out any terrorist attack. What is clear, however, is the boat was no ordinary fishing vessel. 

Nitin Gokhale in New Delhi