A terror plot eerily reminiscent of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks ended in flames minutes into the New Year after India, armed with intelligence from a spy plane, drove an explosives-laden Pakistani boat to blow itself up near Gujarat.
All four crew of the fish trawler that was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard and exploded 200 nautical miles (371 km) off Porbandar are suspected to have died in the tense 16-hour-long drama in the Arabian Sea early Thursday. Neither the boat nor its crew could be recovered due to rough weather.
“It (the boat) was on a suicide mission. The consequences would have been disastrous had the boat slipped past our defences,” a top navy official told HT.
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar heaped praises on the coast guard and those involved in the operation. "I congratulate coast guards for timely action of intercepting a boat carrying suspected terror groups with surgical precision," he tweeted.
A defence ministry official said the trawler stopped only after the coast guard fired shots, but the crew had by then set it on fire, triggering a major explosion that sank the vessel.
The Indian Coast Guard ruled out the explosion being an accident, saying the men on the boat sped away because they were hiding "something really serious".
"If they weren't doing anything wrong, then they had no reason to run, to set the boat on fire. Why would anyone set (themselves) on fire?" said KR Nautiyal, deputy inspector general of the coast guard.
A top government source told HT it all began around 9am on December 31, after the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) issued an intelligence alert that a suspicious Pakistani fishing boat from Keti Bunder near Karachi was headed towards India.
The conversations between the crew and their handlers in Pakistan were intercepted and intelligence authorities suspected that a terror strike was being planned.
With the NTRO providing the exact coordinates of the trawler, the coast guard scrambled a Dornier plane at 11am to locate it. The Dornier captain was categorically asked not to fly too low as it would have alerted the crew. The plane spotted the boat at the exact location given by the NTRO.
It undertook a second sortie at 2pm and found that the rogue boat was still sailing towards India. The aircraft was launched for the third time at 5.30pm. It found no change in the boat's course. By now, the ICG was pretty clear that the Pakistani vessel was up to some serious mischief --- perhaps a 26/11-type terror strike or a suicide attack on an Indian warship.
It immediately ordered two warships patrolling the area to intercept the boat and interrogate the crew. ICG's in-shore patrol vessel Rajratan made contact with the boat around 11pm.
The warship warned the unlit vessel to stop for investigation but it swiftly changed course and attempted to speed away, taking advantage of the "darkness, bad weather and strong winds". This led to a hot pursuit that lasted for more than an hour before the four-man crew hid below the deck and exploded the boat.
It was 12.15am, January 1, 2015. A bloody start to the new year had been averted. However, top security officials were at their desks to monitor the entire operation till 4.30am.
The incident brought back memories of the terror attacks in Mumbai six years ago. Then, 10 gunmen had travelled from Karachi in a boat, hijacked an Indian fishing vessel and steered it to Mumbai to go on a three-day rampage during which they killed 166 people.
Video:Pak boat blows up after interception by Indian Coast Guard
Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao told NDTV, "The coast guard has foiled attempts of a suspected terror boat that was actually spotted near the Indo-Pak maritime border."
"Possibly this was yet another attempt to sneak terrorists into the Indian territory."
The Pakistan boat drama came barely a month after navy chief Admiral Robin Dhowan said his force would observe no niceties if it came across Pakistani vessels due to a possible threat -- against the backdrop of militants attempting to hijack a Pakistan frigate in September.
The incident was also a chilling reminder of the terror threat on the high seas and the deadly bombing of the USS Cole 14 years ago. In October 2000, suicide bombers exploded a small boat alongside the US Navy destroyer in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors and injuring another 39.
(With AFP inputs)