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June 26, 1999
The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan
Tiger Hills remains army's main headache
Standing beneath a brilliant blue sky at the base of a 4,000-plus metre ridge in Drass, the colonel paused a moment as he considered the most-asked-but never-answered question.
''Before November,'' he finally replies, ''we should definitely be able to clear the Drass area by the time the passes close for winter.''
The colonel, here since the first of June, has under his command the Drass sub-sector including the Mashkoh Valley -- both pockmarked by Pakistani intruders.
The on-going operation in Tiger Hills -- so too was the now-ended battle of Tololing -- is under his immediate direction. ''We are fighting on very hostile, rocky terrain at an altitude of 14,000 to 18,000 feet,'' he says.
''To maintain one man at the top, we require two or three chaps behind. So the operation is slow... it will be a few months before the area is cleared,'' he adds.
The capture of the Tololing ridge on June 20 has brought visible relief in the Drass area. For one, the moderate to heavy shelling that was a regular feature on the Srinagar-Leh highway has been reduced remarkably -- to about 20 to 25 percent of what it used to be.
The ridge, just four kilometres from the key road, presented an excellent vantage point to the intruders to guide artillery fire from. Right now, the colonel says, mopping up operations are going on in the area.
''We have completely searched 5140 (a point on Tololing) and adjacent features and have eliminated all residual resistance,'' he reveals.
The continuing operation -- there is an area about five to six kilometres that need to be sanitised -- on Tololing saw the troops recovering, among others, a 12 mm heavy machine gun, three universal machine guns, radio sets, a huge cache of ammunition (for medium machine guns, universal machine guns and AK - 47), and, interestingly, two more gas masks. Earlier, soon after Tololing fell, the troops had found three masks.
''They came prepared for gas attacks,'' the colonel says. This could mean they were planning gas attacks (banned by the international community).
Though there are still miles to go in the Drass sub-sector, the army has made good progress. Since the first of June, five important intruder pockets have been captured. The Tiger Hills remains the major head-ache.
''It is completely with the enemy,'' the colonel admits, ''but it has been effectively isolated from three directions -- that is, the north, the east and the south. The only link the enemy has with this locality is through a ridgeline running from the west.''
This ridge, he goes on, is under Indian fire. But owing to poor visibility in the area, the intruders are managing to get supplies. The supplies are brought most of the way on mules and yaks. Except for the last stretch where very small groups of porters carry them up.
Besides this ridge, there are ''two more important'' supply lines that have to be choked in Drass, where, the colonel says, the intruders have been pushed back to two to three kilometres from the Line of Control and in Mashkoh valley, which is of much more strategic importance than Drass.
North of Drass, three more positions of the intruders remain to be captured. As for the Mashkoh Valley, the number of pockets there are more --''eight to ten.''
''Are the troops on top of these ridges rotated?'' the colonel is asked. ''Those involved in intense combat stay up there for ten to fifteen days while those on purely defensive positions stay up longer,'' he replies.
High altitude equipment and high calorie rations, which were in short supply during the initial days of fighting are not a problem anymore. Neither is, says the colonel, weaponry, of which more is on the way.
''As per confirmed estimates, we have killed over 35 intruders in Drass. That is the official figure but I would say the actual figure is at least double that number, if not more,'' he says.
The Indian casualties in the area, meanwhile, stand officially at about 180 to 300-odd killed and 150-odd injured, none missing.
''Despite the heavy casualties we have suffered, the operations are going on. We are gaining ground and should be able to clear the area in a few months,'' the colonel affirms as a parting shot before leading us to a makeshift buffet table.
Three jawans pass over kettles of hot tea and goodies from the Siachen packet.
The blue sky, meanwhile, had lost its brilliance. The day, a rare one, tranquil almost, unmarred by bursting shells -- at least around here -- was slipping into its last hours.
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