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June 21, 1999


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'Victory will not come easy'

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Amberish K Diwanji in Batalik

Indian troops have made substantial progress in the Batalik sector, much more than the advance they have made in Kargil or Drass.

A senior army officer told Rediff On The NeT that the intruders have been pushed back to 'hardly a kilometre or two' inside the Line of Control.

Unlike in Kargil or Drass, the intruders are in no position to threaten the Srinagar-Leh highway, which winds away in Batalik, anymore. Earlier, they were sitting quite close to it.

The importance of Batalik lies in the fact that it leads to the Siachen Glacier, which, though held by India, Pakistan claims for its own.

"It is difficult to see what Pakistan will get by holding Kukarthang range. It is too far from the highway, and the mountain is more difficult from their side than from ours, unlike the case in most of the other peaks that have become battlegrounds. The only reason is perhaps to internationalise Kashmir by capturing some key villages or to launch an attack on Siachen," the officer said.

In the Batalik sector, there are three ranges running from the Indian side across to Pakistan: the Kukarthang, the Kaluwang, and the Jubar. It is in the Kukarthang range that the intruders have been pushed back.

In the other ranges, the intruders continue to hold on to pockets a couple of kilometres inside. "There is no fixed distance, some heights are more deep inside, some just on the LC, but everywhere they are on the retreat," he added.

Shelling from Pakistan continues with intense regularity. A few days ago, a shell fell just 30 metres away from the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Corps workshop in the army encampment. Luckily, no one was hurt. And the rattled army began pounding away at Pakistani positions with greater vigour.

The operation in Batalik is being carried out at 15,000 feet to 18,000 feet. It was here that Chorbat La was secured by Major Wangchuk. It was also here that Captain Amol Kalia and Major Mariappan Sarvanan of 1 Bihar was killed by the armed intruders. Sarvanan's body is yet to be retrieved; it continues to lie in a no-man's land between Indian and Pakistani positions.

"Every time we go to recover the body, the Pakis open fire and if one of their men tries to claim the body, we open fire. That is why his body remains where it is," said the army officer.

However, the officer added that with the Indian forces making slow but steady progress, it was only a matter of time before the body was recovered.

It was, again, in Batalik that the three Pakistani soldiers' bodies were recovered, proving beyond doubt the direct involvement of the Pakistani army in the operation. "I really don't understand why these men are called infiltrators or intruders. They belong to the Pakistan army or the Taliban, which is the Afghan army. Both are armies of specific countries who are jointly attacking India and should be called as such," the officer said.

He estimated that 75 per cent were Pakistani soldiers, the rest Taliban.

Indian success in gaining crucial heights owed a lot to artillery fire. The observation posts on the highest peaks directed the firing from 130 mm and 155 mm Bofors howitzers with uncanny precision, causing immense damage to Pakistani positions.

"In one position, we killed 12 out of the 13 troops present and damaged the Pakistani helipad," said the officer.

It is in the Kukarthang range that some of the fiercest fighting has taken place. A major conflict is raging for reclaiming the highest point, Point 5287 (which means the peak's height is 5287 metres). This is the highest point on the LoC. From Point 5287, four ridges run down, all of which were initially held by Pakistan. India has taken control of three (except the one that ran towards the Pakistani side), and having thus encircled Point 5287 from three sides, the army is slowly squeezing the enemy.

In another area in the Kukarthang range, Indian forces and the enemy are only 30 metres apart, separated by a huge boulder, said the officer. Both sides keep firing short bursts, but with Indians controlling 75 per cent of that particular mountain, the army hopes to gain the height in a few days time.

In the Batalik sector falls Turtuk and some other villages, all of which were part of Pakistan until the 1971 war when India 'reclaimed' them from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. And though about a week ago some residents of Turtuk and the surrounding areas were nabbed by the police for planning sabotage, the army officer expressed his appreciation of the people's support to the forces.

"The locals have given us total support as porters and guides. We are using mules to send up food packets for the artillery and infantry troops in the forward areas," he said.

The officer pointed out that the enemy was highly motivated and showed no sign of retreating. "They are not going to leave unless we physically throw them out. They have come and held the peaks under adverse weather conditions and under our sustained firing. Hence victory will not come easy," he added.

The senior officer said he expected the battle to go on for at least a couple of months. "We are in no hurry. We are slowly but surely exhausting the enemy and it is only a matter of time," he said.

And though the Indian army is committed to keeping its casualties low, it has not prevented the officers and men from waging tough battles to gain specific heights. Victory will be India's, later if not sooner.

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