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India Steps up Air Sorties in Ladakh after Fresh Border Tension with China at LAC

In this September 14, 2017 file photo, Pangong lake is seen near the India-China border in India's Ladakh area. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, file)

In this September 14, 2017 file photo, Pangong lake is seen near the India-China border in India's Ladakh area. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, file)

Officials in Ladakh said they expect more skirmishes in the eastern Ladakh area in the run-up to the talks.

Day after allegations of firing on the South bank of Pangong Tso, the North bank of the lake has been seeing hectic activity since Tuesday night. Officials told News18 that since Tuesday night, a PLA build-up has been noticed in the general area of Finger 3 on the North bank of Pangong Tso. “From the heights that Indian forces have occupied, PLA build-up on the heights near finger 3 was observed. Soon, our side also spruced up the numbers,” an official said.

News18, reporting from Leh, observed multiple air sorties by Sukhois, MIGs and Transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force. Locals said this air activity picked up pace a little past midnight on the intervening nigh of September 8-9. Officials also confirmed that all border troops were put on the highest level of alertness after the North bank build-up was noticed. The air sortie frequency also went up in the last 15 hours to showcase preparedness and answer the mind games that Chinese forces are playing.

The latest build-up came hours before India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar is to meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Officials told News18 that 1,500-2,000 Chinese soldiers have climbed the ridges near Finger 3 on the lake’s North Bank with artillery guns and automatic weapons and are currently separated from the Indian troops only by a distance of 300m.

“It is almost eyeball to eyeball. The Indian and Chinese sides in large numbers have occupied two ridge tops with their weapons. There is a chasm between the two heights, but the aerial distance is only about 300m,” said an official in Ladakh.

The information was corroborated by a second officer in the security establishment who said the Chinese PLA started assembling troops at Finger 3 after they figured out the Indian side’s strategy of occupying heights to keep an eye on the opponents. “All night the situation was tense. Today afternoon some nerves were calmed but both sides continue to deploy their troops,” said the officer.

Commander-level talks were held to defuse the situation at North Bank on Wednesday afternoon. Officials said the talks ensured things do not escalate further.

India and China had a fresh face-off on Tuesday when the Chinese side accused Indian troops of illegally crossing the border at the shore of the God Pao Mountain area and firing warning shots. India, however, denied the claims, with the defence ministry saying: “India, while is committed to disengagement and de-escalating the situation on the LAC, China continues to undertake provocative activities to escalate. At no stage has the Indian Army transgressed across the LAC or resorted to use of any aggressive means, including firing.”

The ministry further said it is in fact the PLA that has been blatantly “violating agreements and carrying out aggressive manoeuvres”, while engagement at military, diplomatic and political level is in progress.

“In the instant case on September 7, 2020, it was the PLA troops who were attempting to close-in with one of our forward positions along the LAC and when dissuaded by own troops, PLA troops fired a few rounds in the air in an attempt to intimidate own troops. However, despite the grave provocation, own troops exercised great restraint and behaved in a mature and responsible manner,” the MoD statement read.

This comes two days after the defence ministers of India and China met in Moscow, and two days ahead of the scheduled meeting between the foreign ministers. “These are serious military provocations.. of a very bad nature,” PLA’s Western Theater Command spokesperson Col Zhang Shuili said.

Shuili, in a statement published by the military’s official news website early on Tuesday, said that Chinese border guards took “countermeasures” to stabilise the situation. The statement did not make clear what those measures were or whether Chinese troops also fired warning shots.

Both sides have observed a long-held protocol to avoid using firearms on the sensitive, high altitude frontier running through the western Himalayas, though this agreement has not prevented casualties.

Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand fighting in a clash in June, an incident that led to China and India deploying additional forces along the frontier.

“We request the Indian side to immediately stop dangerous actions…and strictly investigate and punish personnel who fired shots to ensure that similar incidents do not occur again,” Shuili said.

Troops of India and China were engaged in two fierce face-offs in Eastern Ladakh and near Naku La Pass in Northern Sikkim recently, leaving several soldiers on both sides injured.