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Mine mire on return route

New Delhi, Oct. 17: Literally picking its way through minefields, the army today began sorting out the modalities of withdrawing to peace stations as homesick troops and officers took stock of transport and logistics for the trip back to the barracks.

Among the most arduous of the tasks set for the army is to take a decision on what to do with the extensive minefields that have been laid along the 2,800-odd km frontline with Pakistan. If laying mines is a delicate job — the army lost soldiers back in January as they handled the sensitive explosives — de-mining the border will be even more painstaking. (India is not a signatory to the International Convention Against Landmines.)

Mines — particularly the kind used by the Indian and Pakistani armies — have claimed civilian casualties, too. They can be washed away by sudden rains, be carried by water in irrigation canals, get buried in sandy banks and explode on the unsuspecting.

The rule book lays down that de-mining should be carried out by the same army units that laid the minefields. But army headquarters will first have to work out whether to de-mine the whole border.

The top brass is understood to be in favour of keeping some of the minefields in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat “alive”. Infantry units will also continue to be close to such pockets along the border for a couple of months as part of a “trip-wire” deployment. In Punjab and Rajasthan, the ministry of defence is yet to sort out the problem of compensating farmers whose fields were taken over by the army for Operation Parakram.

The vice-chief of army staff, Lt Gen. N.C. Vij, and director general of military operations Lt Gen. Chahal are overseeing the military de-escalation and redeployment of troops. It is estimated that the entire redeployment will take four to six weeks but efforts are being made to send back a bulk of the forces by Diwali.

Officers do not expect that civilian logistics will be available to the army on a war footing — the sort of assistance given to it in December last year that allowed it to complete the mobilisation in less than four weeks.

Next week, Operation Parakram is to be reviewed at a scheduled combined commanders conference of the army, the navy and the air force which will also be addressed by the Prime Minister. Even before the Cabinet Committee on Security last evening decided to call off Operation Parakram, the navy had withdrawn its vessels from the north Arabian Sea.

Among the first air force units to return to parent bases will be the squadrons that were on forward deployment from the eastern theatre.

The army headquarters has asked the railway ministry for special warrants for movement of troops. The bulk of the logistics will be required for the three strike corps — 1, 2 and 21 — whose parent bases are in Bhatinda, Ambala and Bhopal.

Strike corps are large integrated formations with heavy complements of armour and artillery. Units of the strike corps are currently spread over about 400 square km in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

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