Coast Guard intercepts suspicious vessel, but no one says where it came from, what it was carrying

Graphic: Nagesh Baitadiya

The Coast Guard on Friday said that it had intercepted a suspicious fishing boat, 365 km off the Porbandar coast on December 31 night, thus botching a repeat of 26/11.When the Coast Guard fired warning shots and asked the crew to stop and identify, the crew set the boat afire.Defence ministry sources recounted the entire episode this way: A day earlier, on December 30, the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) had intercepted a conversation from Karachi on “transferring vital equipment” to the western coast of India.The Karachi-based guy also said that the cost of each equipment ran into several lakhs of rupees. Another conversation from the same global positioning point said ‘receivers’ have been paid handsomely to transport the consignment, defence sources claimed.The NTRO intercepts were then passed on to the Coast Guard and then the action started.The Coast Guard’s claim, however, leaves several questions unanswered. Even the defence ministry’s well-crafted “official statement” is far from convincing.Here’s what what the ministry statement said:”As per intelligence inputs received on December 31, a fishing boat from Keti Bunder near Karachi was planning some “illicit transaction” in the Arabian Sea. A Coast Guard ship warned the fishing boat to stop for further investigation. However, the boat increased speed and tried to escape from the Indian side.”The hot pursuit continued for nearly one hour and the Coast Guard ship managed to stop the fishing boat after firing warning shots. Four persons were seen aboard the boat and they disregarded all warnings by the Coast Guard. Soon thereafter, the crew hid themselves in the deck below and set the boat afire, which resulted in an explosion and a major fire on the boat.” Where’s the defence ministry slipping?The ministry did not say what kind of cargo the boat was carrying. It didn’t say the boat was carrying explosives. All it said was “illicit transaction”. It did not even say whether the boat was of Pakistani origin or not.Why cannot it be called a fidayeen (suicide) attack?According to the Coast Guard, the crew of the boat hid themselves in deck compartment below and set it afire. “If it really was a boat carrying terrorists for a 26/11 kind of an attack, its crew would have attacked the Coast Guard ship first and blown up the boat only after harming the Coast Guard, ” said a senior intelligence official.Was the boat in Indian or international waters?Even senior intelligence agency wonder why the Coast Guard chased the boat when it was on the fringe of India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The EEZ extends up to 200 nautical miles or 370 km. According to UN convention, a nation can chase or intercept suspicious vessels if they prohibit the passage the host nation’s passage or if they (suspicious vessels) loiter above or under the surface of the sea. That was not the case here, officials say.When can Coast Guard/Navy intercept a vessel?As per international protocol, the Indian Navy or the Coast Guard can exert limited control for preventing or punishing “infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations, or can take punitive action against a loitering ship only in the contiguous zone which extends from the outer edge of the territorial sea to up to 24 nautical miles or 44.4 km. What are the other possibilities?There could be many other possibilities that only a proper investigation could unravel. Here are some:Was the boat smuggling liquor or some contraband?Was it meant to deliver goods within Pakistan and strayed off its course and ventured into Indian waters?Did the Coast Guard fire at the boat? Was it the Coast Guard firing that set the boat afire?

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Was it indeed a terror boat?