The Chinese ship, detained in Kandla port for wrongly declaring an autoclave which can also be used in the manufacture of missiles as a dryer, almost managed to leave Indian shores on the intervening night of February 4 and 5 for its final destination, Port Qasim in Karachi, Pakistan.
Hindustan Times first reported on Monday that the merchant vessel (MV) Da Cui Yun had been detained by Indian customs officials at Deendayal Port, formerly known as Kandla Port, for allegedly carrying an autoclave, and also mis-declaring it.
Customs officials seized the suspect cargo from the vessel, which flies a Hong Kong flag, on Monday even though the crew are still on board.
The ship, which reached Kandla on February 3, has been moved away from Jetty 16, where it was berthed earlier, to the anchorage area of the port.
A port official familiar with the matter said on Tuesday that there was a strong chance of the ship’s papers also being seized. “The next course of action depends on the government,” the official added on condition of anonymity.
A team from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is examining the cargo.
HT has learnt that the ship almost got away with its precious cargo.
Kandla Port authorities issued the crucial “no-objection certificate” after verifying it had no dues as per the norm. An “onward-sailing memo” was issued for February 4, a second senior port official said on condition of anonymity. A pilot to guide the 166.6-metre-long 20,949-tonne ship out of the harbour was put on standby at the request of the MV Da Cui Yun.
“Suddenly, however, there was a flurry of activity. Senior Kandla Port officials got calls from New Delhi. Officials of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and other security agencies reached Kandla,” the second official added.
HT learns that officials from the national security establishment were part of the team.
The customs authorities, who were about to issue final clearance for the vessel to set sail, backed off. “On February 5, a ship chandler put in a request to bar the pilot and the vessel out of the harbour,” the second official said. “The DRDO report will be crucial in determining the next step,” said a third official, who asked not to be named.
On February 3, MV Da Cui Yun arrived in Kandla and immediately offloaded 2,480 tonne of machinery, even though Kandla Port authorities had been expecting the vessel to arrive on January 31. But such delays are common in shipping.
The ship was clearly aiming to leave soon.
“Medical certificates of the crew — a mandatory requirement — was filed much in advance by their agents to secure necessary port clearances,” the second official said.
While DRDO scientists examine the equipment, investigators are also interested in the ship’s charter. Prior to sailing from Jiangyin port on the Yangtze river in China’s Jiangsu province, the vessel was harboured in Shanghai for five days and also passed through Nantong Port in Jiangsu province.
“In the current context, the visit to these ports could hold clues,” the third official said.
The tip-off, HT learns, came from Hong Kong to the highest levels of Indian intelligence. Indian operatives are believed to have sent a message that the ship could be carrying dual-use technology products — those that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. The US has also been maintaining a close watch on the Chinese shipping companies after it imposed sanctions on Iran, but it isn’t immediately clear whether the US provided any intelligence. The US had also imposed sanctions on some of the Chinese shipping companies.
After the ship was prevented from leaving, an inspection by the customs department found that the “ declaration (on the nature of cargo) wasn’t matching,” a fourth senior official at Kandla port said on condition of anonymity. “Prima facie, it appears the vessel violated the Special Chemicals, Organisms, Materials, Equipment and Technologies (Scomet) regulations,” this person added.
Category 4 and 5 of the Scomet regulations deal with the transport of dual-use technology, especially those that can be used for the production of nuclear warheads. The regulations were introduced after the UN confirmed that Iraq had used chemical weapons on Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. The regulations are designed to control the export and prevent the proliferation of technologies and equipment which can be used in the manufacture or disposal of chemical and biological weapons. Dual-use items are also considered contributors to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).