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Brutal reminder from frozen frontier Over 100 Pak troops trapped

New Delhi, April 7: An avalanche has buried a Pakistani military camp near Saichen along the Indian border, trapping at least 117 soldiers in the frozen wastes where neither side fires at the other but weather takes a heavy toll irrespective of the colour of the uniform.

“At six ’clock this morning, this avalanche hit a (military) headquarters. Over 100 soldiers and personnel are trapped,” Pakistan Army spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas said.

A helicopter rescue team was searching for the soldiers with sniffer dogs, he added. The fate of those buried was unclear. But Pakistani state television reported the snow was up to 80ft deep, suggesting chances of survival were slim.

Disasters in the Siachen are not unknown but the one today unfolded on the eve of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s private visit to India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to the Indian 102 brigade headquarters in Siachen in June 2005, had held out hope that talks with Pakistan would lead to the creation of a “peace mountain” in the forbidding heights. So far, there have been 12 rounds of defence secretary-level talks between New Delhi and Islamabad. But neither side wants to withdraw first.

The Indian Army says it has a tactical advantage because it occupies the heights. The army is wary of “frittering away” this advantage on the negotiating table without the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) being “authenticated”. It fears that the Pakistani troops will occupy the heights if they were to vacate them. Some estimates say both countries together have between 10,000 and 20,000 troops in the mountains.

Following the ceasefire in November 2003, Indians and Pakistanis have stopped shooting at each other. Till then, that was an almost daily affair. The soldiers now shoot at snow — and before that each side warns the other lest the firing be misinterpreted — to trigger artificial avalanches and avoid being caught off guard by one, as happened today.

The avalanche at dawn hit a Pakistani battalion headquarters in the glacier’s Gayari sector at an altitude of 14,000-15,000ft. The headquarters under the Pakistan Army’s 323 brigade is the main gateway through which troops and supplies pass on to other more remote outposts. Its soldiers are from the Northern Light Infantry, a force that draws most of its troops from Gilgit, Baltistan and the Northern areas.

Gayari is situated in a valley between two high mountains, close to a military hospital, according to an officer who was stationed there in 2003. It is not on the AGPL and, therefore, not eyeball-to-eyeball with Indian troops.

An Indian brigadier who has served in Siachen estimated it would be about 15-20km from Indian positions and lower down from the heights.

Gayari is used by the Pakistan Army as a base to rotate troops from and send them to higher locations on the Saltoro Ridge around the Chumik glacier.

Indian troops occupy and hold ground much higher up on most of the Saltoro Ridge, a veritable mountain wall from which they look down on Pakistani positions.

Conflict in Siachen began more than 20 years ago when India occupied the heights of the 78km-long glacier, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the territory. On April 13, 1984, the Indian Army in a move codenamed Operation Meghdoot occupied the Saltoro Ridge and denied the Pakistan Army access to the glacier by occupying positions at heights ranging from 16,000ft to 20,000ft. Most Pakistani positions are at heights between 9,000ft and 15,000ft.

Both sides are paying a high price in men and materiel. The troops brave viciously cold temperatures, altitude sickness and high winds for months on end. More soldiers have died from the harsh weather than in combat on the glacier, which was uninhabited before troops moved there. Better shelters, equipment and clothing have been introduced of late. But since the 1999 Kargil war, the Siachen battle zone has got extended with the Indian army having to hold heights along the Line of Control through the winter.

In January 2010, too, an avalanche came down on Pakistani troops near Gayari and Pakistani reports said nearly 40 soldiers were killed. In August 2010, 26 Indian soldiers were swept away after a cloudburst in Ladakh. India sought and got help from Pakistan to recover many bodies.

Then in November 2010, an Indian helicopter crashed while attempting a landing on a “stamp-sized” helipad to deliver supplies to troops. One pilot fell into territory controlled by Pakistani troops. His body was returned.