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June 29, 1999
Batalik, the army's toughest call
Chindu Sreedharan in Batalik
Steep ridges capped in snow, cutting, cruel and barren, rising high, over 5000 metres, into thin air,
Up at such oxygen-starved altitudes, even getting up is an effort -- so imagine climbing under fire, with no cover except what the terrain offers, gaining the top, and then forcibly evicting the enemy from well dug-in positions.
"Yes, it is an impossible task," agreed a colonel in the Kargil sector. "But someone's got to do it. And we are doing it."
The colonel's comment is on the advances in Batalik, the toughest operations the Indian Army has on its hands right now. The terrain and altitude are more debilitating than in Drass, Mashkoh or Kargil. But, according to the colonel, his troops are gaining satisfactorily.
"In the last operation conducted some 72 hours ago, we've been able to account for seven enemy dead," he had said on Saturday evening at a briefing for the media in Kargil. "It was an action in which the enemy was bringing in very effective machine-gun fire, fire with rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles.
Yet, the operation saw no Indian casualty, and succeeded in clearing a ridgeline -- one of the four occupied in Batalik -- completely. A substantial quantity of arms and ammunition was recovered.
In addition, the operation threw up more proof of the Pakistan Army's involvement in the intrusion: identity cards and paybooks recovered from the slain men identified them as belonging to the Delta Company of the 7 Northern Light Infantry.
"None of the men were in uniform. Some wore tracksuits with Karakoram written on them while the rest were dressed in civilian clothes with snow parkers," the colonel said.
But the bodies were not handed over to Pakistan. "They have been buried," the colonel said. "It was not possible to [hand them over] because the area of operation is well away from the Line of Control as well as our bases."
Despite the colonel's improbable claim that close to 80 per cent of the army's work in Batalik is over, and his being more than satisfied with the progress, the battle here may well continue into winter. The intruders - numbering about 400, the bulk of them Pakistan Army regulars -- are still holding dominant positions 4-5km into the Indian side of the LoC on the ridgelines.
The last of these is bang on the LoC (in fact, the LoC runs along it), from where the intruders are covering those on the other two ridges. Which means Indian troops are finding it difficult to encircle these positions. If they try to come in behind the advance positions, they are exposed to direct fire.
Since May, when the operations begun, India, according to official figures, has lost 78 men in the area, including five officers, and 200 have been injured. The Pakistanis have lost more than 100 men while the number of injured runs into several hundreds, the colonel claimed.
"In most places," he added, "the enemy is fixed. They are facing severe problems, running out of rations, ammunition..."
Questioned about the presence of Pakistan's Special Service Group, the colonel said it is quite possible the elite troops are also in Batalik. Radio intercepts have indicated at least 80 SSG personnel in the area. And the army has spotted many men in black, the colour of the SSG uniform.
The colonel refused to comment on whether the operations would continue into winter. But, yes, the army is definitely prepared for the eventuality, he said.
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