New Delhi, Aug. 23: India today denied Pakistani allegations that its army and airforce attacked a post across the Line of Control near a highly-sensitive area where the Kargil war climaxed in 1999, even as US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage was continuing with efforts to broker peace.
New Delhi described as “false and malicious” Pakistan spokesman Major General Rashid Quereshi’s charge that an assault by about 70 Indian soldiers backed by an IAF fighter aircraft had been repulsed. Quereshi also claimed that Pakistani forces could see bodies of Indian soldiers strewn on the heights.
“It is a total falsehood,” said defence minister George Fernandes. “There could not be a greater lie than this. Such white lies have become a habit (with Pakistan),” he said.
Indian Army chief General S. Padmanabhan left for Srinagar today.
The ministry of defence did not give its version of the incident, but in Islamabad, Quereshi was understood to have briefed non-Indian journalists about the incident.
The interpretation of Pakistan’s allegation here is that Islamabad is raising the bogey of army operations by India to make the point that New Delhi’s military muscle is more of a destabilising factor than is the issue of infiltration.
From the information available so far, the action took place near Gultari, though there is some confusion over its timing. Pakistan has alleged it was last night but firing and shelling have been reported from the zone off and on over the past fortnight.
Gultari, to the west of Kargil and north of the Indian brigade headquarters at Dras, is a staging post for Pakistani forward units. Indian military intelligence also has been concerned that Gultari and adjoining areas may have concentrations of Taliban and Al Qaida militants.
Gultari is about 9 km from the Line of Control inside PoK. Pakistan’s Gultari army post, at a height of about 11,600 feet, was reported to have provided logistical support to troops of the Northern Light Infantry who had occupied the Kargil heights in this zone.
The place is opposite the Dras sub-sector where Indian and Pakistani troops are strung along mostly snowbound heights. It is possible that from Tiger Top, the apex of Tiger Hill (at 5,020 metres) — which was captured in the climax to the Kargil war — Indian artillery observers would have a view of Gultari.
Even after the “official” end of the Kargil conflict, there were reports of some heights in this area still not having been fully cleared. Among this is Point 5,353, a strategic height along the Marpo La ridgeline that runs immediately north of Mushkoh Valley. But the Indian Army claims every inch of territory has been recaptured and consolidated.
Defence sources described last night’s events as “routine”. This means there has been an exchange of artillery fire, but by itself, it is no indicator of an assault. Almost the entire stretch of the LoC — especially in this sector — is defined, for practical purposes, by firing, shelling and occasional incursions to capture or destroy strategic heights.
A crucial Pakistani installation — called the Benazir Post — that had supported the intruders in the Kargil heights is also just about north of Tiger Hill across the LoC and a mostly glaciated waterbody with the fascinating name, Pariyon ki Jheel (Lake of Fairies).
Any military operation by the Indian Army across this region is fraught with possibilities of a flare-up and it would need the concurrence of the political leadership. There is no evidence that New Delhi is immediately in favour of an escalation of hostilities beyond the eyeball-to-eyeball deployment. In military parlance, use of airpower — as has been alleged by Islamabad —is construed as an escalation.
Armitage, who met national security adviser Brajesh Mishra today, termed as “significant” the government’s gestures towards a dialogue with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in the run-up to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections.