Kolkata, June 30 There were grave concerns expressed by the Indian authorities five days ago when a Karachi bound Ro/Ro vessel was detained in the Hooghly off Kolkata; many expressed fears that the staggering 500 tonnes of weapons carried on the
“Aegean Glory’, including explosives and rocket launchers, could be headed for terrorists in Pakistan. Observers were baffled: why should that country route such sensitive cargo through its adversary, India? The ship was detained and brought to Kolkata for investigations.
The truth, as it turns out, is less of a conspiracy but nonetheless equally worrying: Investigators now say that the military cargo actually belongs to the United Nations; maritime security experts have expressed grave concern at the lack of concern for security shown by the UN in outsourcing the shipping of military cargo through private contractors, whose links to undesirable elements, including terrorists, may be difficult to determine.
It now appears that after Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal completed a stint in the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Liberia, the U.N. hired a private contractor to ship the military equipment back to those countries. Incidentally, countries like India use their own resources for this purpose. In any case, the Aegean Glory set sail on May 18, and was bound for Diamond Harbour off Kolkata after a call to Chittagong. She was to offload the military hardware bound for Nepal.
India says that UN officials broke protocol and did not notify India about their cargo. Worse, their shipping agent also failed to declare the nature of the cargo to Kolkata part. End result: Indian police and military officials detained the ship; although the UN mission in Liberia has reportedly confirmed that the military cargo belonged to them, Indian officials have expressed grave concern that the U.N. is effectively outsourcing the transport of sensitive weaponry- including mortars, anti aircraft guns, bombs and rocket launchers- to private contractors.
Unsurprisingly, the Indian authorities are taking the attempted breach of security very seriously. Customs officials have questioned the 15 Ukrainian, Armenian and Romanian crew members of the ship. Representatives of Crystal Shipping, the ship's clearing agent in the city, are also being questioned about the consignment. "The representatives admitted that they had made a mistake by only declaring the details of the consignment meant for Nepal, which was to be offloaded at Kolkata port," said a customs source quoted in a newspaper.
Two big mysteries have still to be unresolved. One is, of course, why the agents failed to declare the nature of the cargo- they would have known very well about the stringent rules that apply when military cargo is involved. The second is equally baffling: The ship was apparently slated to discharge the armaments at Diamond Harbour anchorage. “We are still not sure how cargo from a gearless ship could be unloaded at Diamond Harbour, which does not have any port facilities as of now," a senior Customs official has said. In fact, the matter came to light only when the pilot on the Glory realised that a gearless ship would have to be taken to KDS in Kolkata and not Diamond Harbour for cargo discharge, and it was on his query that it became known that no cargo declaration had been made.
Another official questions the role of the UN in this incident, implying extreme disregard for security. “Imagine, in this day and age of heightened security concerns, with piracy on the high areas — what if someone drops the cargo off mid-ocean to some Al Qaeda person?” he asked, adding that it was “appalling” that the U.N. transported military cargo in this fashion.
“You can’t send such dangerous cargo in a merchant ship,” he said.