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Gujarat drug haul may be tip of the iceberg

Illegal course: Coast Guard officials inspect the vessel Henry in Porbandar last week.   | Photo Credit: PTI

For the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) and intelligence agencies, the 1,400 kg heroin capture from the Panamanian ship MV Hennry, caught off Porbandar last week, was a big success. But the extent of the network, and the high risks in the operation is only now being realised, as an investigation report, accessed by The Hindu, reveals, with the captain of the ship, Suprit Tiwari, on the run not only from the authorities but also from his Iranian employer.

According to an official involved in the case, the original input for the ship-chase came from “phone chatter”, picked up by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) in the Arabian Sea on July 27. From the intercepts it appeared the 26-year-old captain of Indian origin had decided to strike a side deal with one Vishal Yadav, a drug dealer in Mumbai, for a commission of ₹50 crore, instead of sticking with the original plan made by his employer — a Dubai- based Iranian Sayeid Ali Morani — of conveying the narcotic shipment to Egypt.

As soon as the NTRO intercepted the satellite phone conversations, a crisis centre was set up in Delhi and intelligence officials from 12 locations in Gujarat and three analysts, who had worked on the 26/11 Mumbai attack case, were tasked for the job.

Shadow of 26/11

Two big worries hung over the control room, according to the report submitted to the government — one was that though the ship was suspected to be carrying only drugs, it was impossible to ignore the fact that it could also be used for a 26/11 style attack, especially as it came via Pakistan. The second was to avoid a repeat of the 2014 New Year’s eve incident when the Coast Guard claimed that an explosives-laden Pakistani boat had blown itself up in the sea, when asked to surrender. Differing accounts of the incident has caused embarrassment to the government.

Gujarat drug haul may be tip of the iceberg

Concerns escalated after Tiwari deliberately damaged the vessel’s Automatic Identification System (AIS), and switched off the ship’s satellite phone, so that Morani would not know its location, an NCB official said.

“There were apprehensions that the ship could be part of a terror attack. Call details of several drug dealers were scanned through and reams of documents on movement of similar ships were analysed. The 26/11 records were taken out to look for a similar pattern,” said a senior Intelligence official.

Over the next 20 hours, a Coast Guard Dornier aircraft conducted a sea-air coordinated search with two helicopters and two vessels, finally accosting the MV Hennry on July 29, 400 nautical miles off the Porbandar coast. Eleven persons — eight crew of the ship, including Tiwari, and three others — were arrested by the NCB.

According to NCB officials, the consignment was loaded into the vessel at sea by a Pakistani boat near the Gwadar port and it left, supposedly for Egypt, on July 20. Pakistani loaders had worked four days to hide the consignment of 1,526 packets of heroin in various cavities, water tanks and pipes.

Investigations found that Captain Tiwari was a resident of Kolkata, where he completed a marine engineering course. He was hired by Morani in Iran in May this year to command the ship, originally registered as “Prince-2”. Tiwari had contacted another sailor from U.P. to find the prospective buyers in Mumbai, Vishal Yadav and Irfan, who offered him a commission of ₹50 crore for the consignment worth more than ₹3,000 crore. Yadav, Irfan and Tiwari’s brother, who went to collect a token amount from them, have also been arrested.

“The contraband was to be sold through hawala channels based in Chhapra, Bihar, and in Sealdah in Bengal,” the official added, indicating that for each such ship and crew traced, there could be several others that ply their deadly trade regularly to Indian shores.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 3:31:03 PM |

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