A CCTV camera footage from a nearby commercial building showed the moving vehicle suddenly engulfed in smoke and coming to a halt. The vehicle however appeared not to have received much damage.
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November 20, 2022 03:15 pm | Updated 03:18 pm IST – Bengaluru/Mangaluru/Mysuru/Hubballi
The Karnataka police burnt the midnight oil as the trail from the auto rickshaw blast in Mangaluru on Saturday evening led them to Mysuru, Hubballi and Tamil Nadu. While the investigations so far have led the state police chief Praveen Sood to declare it an “act of terror”, the identity of the perpetrator — presently under treatment in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at a hospital in Mangaluru with over 40% burn injuries — still remains a mystery.
A passenger hired an auto rickshaw driven by Purushottam, a resident of Mangaluru, at Naguri Bus Station on the outskirts of Mangaluru to Pumpwell Junction on Saturday evening. Shortly after, there was a blast in the autorickshaw and the vehicle was engulfed in dense white smoke. Though initial suspicions were over a possible tyre burst or a technical glitch in the rickshaw, the evidence at the site of the blast led Mangaluru City Police to suspect otherwise.
“The fire in the auto rickshaw started from the bag of the passenger,” Mangaluru City Police Commissioner N. Shashi Kumar had said on Saturday after the incident. “What raised red flags was the presence of a pressure cooker, earlier used by many terrorist organisations for IED blasts, remains of a battery operated circuit and many nuts and bolts used to pack an IED,” a senior police official in the know said.
There was a very low-key blast sound followed by fire and smoke. “Preliminary investigations have pointed to low-intensity explosives like phosphorus used in matchsticks or gunpowder being used, and not Ammonium Nitrate, commonly used in IEDs. The bomb was very crudely made in a very amateur way with two cells,” a senior police officer said.
The bomb accidentally went off, probably because of heating up of the explosive material due to friction, on the way to its destination, the police suspect.
“The explosive was packed in the pressure cooker and the auto passenger came to Mangaluru in a bus and then boarded the auto rickshaw. The travel would have caused friction, which would have heated up the explosive material causing the accidental blast,” a senior police official said.
The explosive used and what triggered the explosion, is now being probed by the Forensic Science Laboratory, Bengaluru, from which teams have rushed to Mangaluru.
Trail leads to Hubballi, Mysuru and Tamil Nadu
Police investigators found two leads on the person of the auto passenger, who was carrying the rigged IED explosive bomb — an Aadhaar card and a mobile phone.
The Aadhaar card was in the name of Premraj Hutagi living in a Hubballi residential address. Hubballi police on Saturday late night tracked down the address but were shocked to find Premraj Hutagi was very much safe and not the person in the autorickshaw.
This 1993-born Premraj Hutagi is presently working as a D Group employee in Indian Railways in Tumakuru, maintaining tracks. Police have now questioned Mr. Premraj in Tumakuru as well, and confirmed he is not in any way linked to the blast, sources said.
Premraj Hutagi had allegedly lost his Aadhaar card nearly six months ago. “I had asked him to lodge a police complaint upon losing his Aadhaar card, but he had not,” said Renuka Hutagi, his mother. The mysterious auto passenger, who had come to possess this lost Aadhaar card, had morphed the card replacing Mr. Premraj’s photograph with his own, police sources said.
Meanwhile, the mobile phone found on the person of the passenger sent the state police on a wild goose chase to Mysuru and Tamil Nadu. “We took the tower dump of the mobile number for the past three months. We found the suspect had travelled from Mysuru to Mangaluru on Saturday morning, probably in a bus, after de-boarding which he caught the auto rickshaw at Naguri Bus Station. The tower dump analysis also showed he had stayed in Lokanayak Nagar off Outer Ring Road in Metagalli Industrial Area in Mysuru, for over a month now. Inquiries on the ground, armed with his photo from the Aadhaar card, led us to the room he had rented in the area,” said a senior police official.
Inquiries with the landlord revealed that the person had submitted the forged Aadhaar card claiming to be Premraj Hutagi from Hubballi nearly two months ago and rented the portion. He had claimed he was looking for a job in the local factories. Police, Bomb Disposal Squad and FSL teams raided the room Sunday morning and found explosive materials, the quantum and details of which the police are still tightlipped about.
The mobile number he was using was procured in Tamil Nadu using another set of fake documents, police teams that are in the neighbouring state have confirmed, sources said. The tower dump analysis shows the person has travelled extensively in Tamil Nadu over the last several months, they said. While there is speculation that the SIM card was procured in Coimbatore, hinting at a possible link to the recent similar blast in the town, police are tight lipped about the same and said linking it to the Coimbatore blast was “too premature”.
Passenger identity remains a mystery
The identity of the auto rickshaw passenger who was carrying the explosive continues to remain a mystery. “The individual has suffered over 40% burns and is in the ICU, in no state to talk to us. His identity is yet to be ascertained and that is key to unravelling the larger conspiracy behind this blast,” said a senior police official.
There are several questions that remain: including what or who was the target of the intended bomb blast and whether the person was self-radicalised or associated with any terror outfits and whether he had any accomplices, police said.