Sunday, 28 October 2012

On a terror trail, a probe over sudden surge in stocking of Ammonium Nitrate in South India

Tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate smuggled out to Kerala from western TN

Thrissur/Salem, October 23:

About a week ago, Mattanur and Koothuparamba police within Kannur district limits seized a haul of ammonium nitrate, detonators and gun powder allegedly meant for illegal quarry owners in Kerala. Few weeks before that seizure, the Vellikulangara police in Thrissur limits seized approximately 500 kilograms of Ammonium Nitrate during a similar raid.

About a month before that haul, approximately 1650 kilograms of ammonium nitrate was recovered from a vehicle at Mannuthi in Thrissur district during a routine inspection by Kerala police. Again, the source of that consignment was linked to an address in Salem district. Initial investigations into all these seizures revealed that the consignment was sent from an unknown destination in Salem district, Tamil Nadu.

According to reliable sources in the Kerala police department, atleast 50 tonnes of Ammonium nitrate, thousands of detonators and hundreds of meters of detonator fuse have been seized by Kerala police over the last few months alone including two full loads of the explosive material (approximately 20 tonnes each) that were sent from Tamil Nadu.

Following the sudden spurt in seizure of Ammonium Nitrate (that was recently classified as an explosive 

material under the Explosives Substances Act), Inspector General of Police (Thrissur Range) Gopinath formed a special team under a Deputy Superintendent of Police to probe the transport of the extremely dangerous explosive material that has been used in several bomb blasts across the country during the recent past.

“Due to our intensified crackdown on transport of Ammonium Nitrate, we managed to register atleast 30 cases under the Explosives Act and investigations are on. So far, we have arrested one person, Suruli Rajan from Haroor in Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu, who is supposed to have arranged for most of the consignments with the help of TN police,” he says. “As the drivers whom we nab are mostly mules who have no more details than the source to pick up the consignment and an approximate destination to drop off the load, there has not been much headway into the probe on whom this huge quantity of explosive is meant for. So far, we believe it is meant for quarry operations here, many of which are illegal.”

A senior intelligence official with a national investigating agency said on condition of anonymity that separate probe conducted by them had revealed that some amount of the explosives could have gone into the hands of extremist elements. “While a majority of the ammonium nitrate is meant for illegal quarries, there is a possibility that certain groups could have stocked it and we are probing that angle,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Intelligence agencies are investigating to find out the reason for the sudden increase in importing of this explosive material in Gods Own Country. “One simple reason for the rise in movement of Ammonium Nitrate is the huge price difference. While a bag of the chemical costs barely Rs. 1500/- in Tamil Nadu, the price for the same when it crosses the border and reaches Kerala is Rs. 7500/-,” says IG Gopinath.

The lure for making a quick buck has transformed several lorry owners and other middlemen to take up smuggling of Ammonium Nitrate across state borders without any licensing. While Kerala police have recovered several tonnes of the chemical over the past few months alone and have identified the source to be Salem in Tamil Nadu, not a single consignment was seized by the Tamil Nadu police although there are atleast a dozen police and revenue check along the state and national highways before the consignment reaches Kerala border.

“It is well-oiled machinery that has been operating for a while now,” says a legal explosive manufacturer based in Salem. “For years, illegal transport of ammonium nitrate and detonators are taking place and each police check post official is paid a handsome amount to turn the other way when the consignment passes by,” he says on condition of anonymity.

Despite the Kerala police having launched a major investigation into the recent haul, their counterparts in Tamil Nadu seem to be blissfully unaware of the racket.

Salem superintendent of police (rural)  Ashwin Kotnis said that investigations done by them had revealed that pilferage happened at the bottom of the explosives chain.

According to him, the legal manufacturers of Ammonium Nitrate gave it to licensed dealers who store it in godowns.  Shot firers with permits to handle explosives take the material from godown to the blast site and use it in quarries. “The problem happens at that level when the excess ammonium nitrate and other detonators are returned back. Instead, there is pilferage,” SP Ashwin Kotnis said.

“While this pilferage might explain limited quantity seizures, 50 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate cannot be handled by shot firers, it is a bigger racket that involves several states,” says a reliable source from explosives industry. “It is common knowledge within the business that a large quantity of Ammonium Nitrate arrives into the country through the sea. It is then handled by pro-Naxal groups in Andhra Pradesh until the consignment reaches Tamil Nadu from where it is sent to Kerala and other states,” says a Salem-based veteran in the explosives business. “Besides threatening national safety, it is also hampering our business in a big way,” he adds.

When this newspaper made attempts to trace the whereabouts of Suruli Rajan from Haroor who is alleged to be the kingpin of the operation, according to Kerala police, neither Salem police nor Dharmapuri police (where he belongs) seemed to have a clue about the man or his operations.

“The Hasthampatti police (in Salem district) did hand over that man to Kerala police upon request but we have no further information. It was a part of their investigation,” said a senior police official.

Carcass of dogs with deep wounds disturb intelligence officials

Two weeks ago, police in Thrissur picked up carcasses of dogs with deep cut wounds in their necks and bellies. The last time such slaughtered dogs were found in Kerala had coincided with the uncovering of Muslim militant training camps in the communally sensitive state with strong connections with the Middle East.

A top intelligence officer said that militants resorted to slaughtering dogs to overcome the revulsion for blood and raw flesh and also for perfecting the murderous strikes with their swords. “It is a disturbing development and an indicator of the strengthening of communal militant forces in the state,” an official said.

Ammonium nitrate still losely guarded in western TN despite amendment of the Explosives Act

Salem, October 23:

About 50 kilometers away from Salem near Vazhapadi is the tiny village of Belur.  35-years-old Mahesh’s godown, where he stocks Ammonium Nitrate, detonators and other fuse material with a valid license, is situated a few kilometers outside town in his 20-acre farmland.

When Mahesh gets an order for blasting rocks in quarry sites or to dig a well, he takes the required quantity of explosives to the site and performs the job. He is one of the only few licensed explosives dealers in the region and obtains his stock either from the state-owned explosive production factory or the only private manufacturer Vetrivel Explosives in Salem.

“The rules are very clear now. We can handle explosives only between 6 am and 6 pm. If the stock is outside after that time, we are supposed to report to the nearest police station and keep it there. No explosive can be transported after sunset,” he says.

Mahesh’s family has been in the business for the last many years and his father was a shot firer too. “We have been doing this since 1979. After father’s death, I took over the business but I’m planning to move on other avenues as the situation and income levels are worse,” he says.

While Mahesh is a licensed shot firer as well as explosives stocker, in most other villagers of Salem district, there are separate licensees for stocking explosives and who are experts in handling them and creating a blast.

“Although only a few men are licensed to trigger a blast, most people in the business are aware of the technique and are employed as shot firers,” says an official of the state government’s mines department. 

“Most illegal quarries that operate here use these illegal shot firers who get the arms from their legal counterparts for a price,” the official states.

Over the past few months, police have been strictly cracking down on illegal godowns and have seized several bags of ammonium nitrate from shot firers both licensed and unlicensed. In July 2012, the amendment to the Explosives Substances Act classifying Ammonium Nitrate as an explosive was notified by the parliament and all concerned agencies have been given a one-year-period to comply with the stringent rules of the Act for storing and handling the explosive.

“This huge stocking of the explosive during the recent past could be a reflection of the modification of the act. In future, it is going to be difficult to transport Ammonium Nitrate or any other explosive,” says a senior manager at Vetrivel Explosives, the only private manufacturer in the state. “On an average, we manufacture approximately 15000 tonnes of emulsion explosive besides everal thousand detonators. All our dealers are licensed and a vehicle will not leave our office without having valid permits and documents. There is no possibility of any illegal channel from our end,” the top management official at Vetrivel Explosives said.

While there are only two licensed producers of explosives in Tamil Nadu including the one owned by state government, neighbouring Andhra Pradhesh has around 20 licensees to manufacture explosives while Karnataka has two licensed produces.  There are no licensed explosive manufacturers in Kerala, according to mines department officials here.

The theory behind Naxal groups gaining control of the Ammonium Nitrate gathers strength in the fact that most of the Ammonium Nitrate sent to illegal quarries in the state and to Kerala do not get manufactured in the state. “It usually comes from some locations in AP and then gets routed via Salem since there are a lot of people who are comfortable with handling explosives here,” said another licensed explosive dealer based in Pennagaram near here.

Back in Belur, shot firer Mahesh who is also now the president of the Chandrapillaivalasu Panchayat makes a request to this newspaper as he proceeds to his godown to spend the night. “Sir, please ask the state government to give us a gun license as soon as possible. We have a huge stock of explosives with us and this area is prone to Naxal attacks. It is very easy for these dangerous explosives to reach the wrong hands and we need firearms to protect our goods,” Mahesh said.

Making a bomb out of Ammonium Nitrate is child’s play

If you thought Ammonium Nitrate, which is claimed to be a fertilizer, need to go through a complex process before it becomes a deadly explosive, here’s a shocker: Making a deadly bomb out of the white crystals of Ammonium Nitrate is so simple that even a lay man can prepare a crude bomb.

A Salem-based expert in explosives point out that all one has to do to prepare a bomb is to take approximately one kilogram of Ammonium Nitrate and mix it with approximately 150 ml of fuel oil (mostly diesel or Kerosene). “Depending on the carbon content in the fuel oil, the intensity of the blast would be higher i.e. a fuel oil with a higher carbon content can produce maximum impact,” he says.

After mixing Ammonium Nitrate with fuel oil, which could be done using bare hands, the mixture has to be packed tightly in an iron container to make a bomb. “If you need higher casualty, make the packing real tight and add nails, iron scrap and anything that can pierce. The tighter the packing, the higher will be the intensity of blast,” he says.

Once the mixture is packed neatly in a container, a fuse wire connected to an Explosive Device (ED) need to be inserted into the container. “Light up the fuse and you have the bomb. Typically, terrorists use an alarm clock that costs around Rs. 35/- to trigger the ED by setting the alarm. When the alarm goes off, the fuse wire gets ignited resulting in a blast,” he says.

According to the experts, approximately one kilogram of Ammonium Nitrate mixed with fuel oil is sufficient to explode the Thiruvalluvar Bus Terminus in Coimbatore. “For two kilograms of the explosive, Koyambedu bus stand in Chennai would be torn apart,” he says.

Several terror attacks that have taken place across India including the Pune blasts of August 2012, the Mumbai blasts in July 2011 and so many other low intensity explosions that have taken place over the past few years.

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