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July 12, 1999
Government denies giving intruders safe passage
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
The external affairs ministry has stoutly denied that the government has given "safe passage" to the armed intruders who are now retreating to the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.
But according to the agreement reached between the directors general of military operations of India and Pakistan, air strikes and certain ground weapons (mostly heavy artillery) will not be used in the sectors from which where the Pakistani Army and the intruders are withdrawing.
The suspension of air strikes and non-use of certain weapons is only to facilitate faster withdrawal, said external affairs ministry spokesman Raminder Singh Jassal.
The Pakistani forces have been given a specific timeframe in which to withdraw, which varies in different sectors. Thus, in the Kaksar sub-sector, the Pakistanis were given from July 10 to 12 to withdraw, and the Indian Air Force carried out strikes this morning on the fleeing intruders, said the IAF spokesman, Group Captain D N Ganesh.
Similarly, in other sectors, the Pakistanis have been given up to two days each. "The idea is that as soon as they withdraw from one sector, our men can move in, check that all the intruders have left, and leave behind a few to hold the heights and ridges. The [rest of the] force can then comb the other sectors and thus, we can check the entire area by staggering the withdrawal since it is not physically possible to comb the entire front at the same time," said Group Captain Ganesh.
Operations in each sub-sector will resume immediately after the deadline for that sub-sector. The final date is first light, July 16, in the Batalik sub-sector. By then all the Pakistanis will have to have left all the pockets currently held by them and gone back across the LoC.
"We were reluctant to give them so much time, but the Pakistanis pleaded for an extra day, hence the date of July 16," said Group Captain Ganesh.
According to a defence ministry statement, the Pakistani DGMO called up his Indian counterpart on July 9 at 2130 IST on the hotline and informed him that the Pakistani forces would begin pulling out from the Kaksar area at first light on July 10 (0500 IST).
It was agreed that during the pullout there would be no air strikes or use of certain ground weapons.
The Pakistani DGMO also sought a meeting with the Indian officer, which was held at the Border Security Force check post at the Wagah border, to work out the modalities of withdrawal.
Under this agreement, Pakistani forces are withdrawing from both Kaksar and Mushkoh valley, the remaining two sectors where pockets of intrusion remain.
In Drass and Batalik, however, withdrawal will only be a token gesture because the Pakistani forces have already been pushed back right up to the Line of Control. In fact, intermittent artillery fire in the two sub-sectors continued, claiming nine Indian and 12 Pakistani soldiers.
The defence ministry statement said the reasons for the Pakistani withdrawal are obvious. Having suffered heavy casualties and with morale plummeting, they were anyway on the verge of being thrown out of the remaining pockets they held.
The statement insisted that allowing the Pakistanis to withdraw did not amount to a ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities. Only air strikes and the use of certain ground weapons have been suspended. Operation Vijay is still on. "If we are fired upon, we will retaliate," declared the army spokesman, Colonel Bikram Singh.
Jassal reiterated that a safe passage had not been offered. "Safe passage means allowing them to use a road that we control. Here they are only going back and we are not impeding their path," he argued.
But many journalists insisted that not firing upon the retreating forces amounted to allowing safe passage. Yesterday, Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister, had declared grandiloquently, "The Indian armed forces do not have a tradition of firing on the backs of retreating soldiers. Hence, there is no question of shooting down the withdrawing soldiers."
An official of the external affairs ministry pointed out that it was easy for armchair journalists and politicians to criticise the suspension of attacks, but the fact is that if the attacks continue, the Pakistanis will fire back. "Any soldier who is being fired upon will return fire. Hence, if we continue our attacks and prevent them from retreating, they will continue to fire upon us and though we will anyway kill them or drive them out, we too will suffer more casualties. Why lose more men when they are anyway keen to pull out? After all, every life is precious," he said.
The total Indian casualties now stand at 398 killed and 578 wounded. The corresponding Pakistani figures are estimated at twice the Indian numbers. And every additional day of fighting would have meant an increase in the list, which could well have gone past the 500 mark.
The other reason for allowing the pullout is that India has achieved its strategic purpose. "The aim was to drive out the Pakistanis and let them know that never again can they encroach upon our turf, which has been proved. For the sake of some misplaced glory, why risk more deaths on our side," said an army officer.
The officer said morale in the Pakistani camp is very low. "Retreating is extremely humiliating for any army, worse than death on the battlefield. Certainly the Pakistani soldier was brave in carrying out his orders, but he has been let down by his officer corps who have abandoned them on our side of the LoC, which means certain death. This defeat will haunt the Pakistani Army for years to come, whereas on our side morale is sky high and we have learnt some precious lessons, which we will now incorporate into our future planning," he said.
The greatest benefit to the army is that once again the armed forces have earned pride of place in the Indian establishment and mindset. "For years, we were marginalised, thanks to these long years of peace and little work for us. Now, it is realised that the nation can ignore the armed forces at its own peril," the officer said.
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