The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Stressed-out soldiers start long march back

Chandi Mandir, Oct. 18: The army is in the process of recalling troops stationed on the border with Pakistan in Punjab and Rajasthan following the Centre’s decision to pull back some brigades.

“We have already started moving some units to their peacetime locations in Rajasthan. We are working for a total pullout from the Ferozepur sector in Punjab and the brigades that had been moved there during December-January after the attack on Parliament have already been intimated of the decision,” clarified a senior officer at the Western Command headquarters.

“We have told the brigade commanders in Ferozepur to pack up and leave the border areas. The first batch of troops have already started returning to their peacetime locations,” said the officer.

“It will take some time as a lot of heavy equipment will have to be towed. It took us more than two months to become battle-ready when the mobilisation took place. It will take a similar period, if not longer, to repack,” the officer added. “Making four lakh soldiers return from the border with nothing to show other than stress-related syndromes is not a good sign.”

However, the pullout will not be total in Punjab. Troops stationed in the Amritsar-Gurdaspur-Pathankot area may not be recalled.

While a brigade or a unit may be recalled or redeployed “it would not be in the interest of the country to keep border areas in the Jammu region unguarded. Cross-border terrorism has not ended. Terrorists had been crossing over to India from Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Pathankot with the help of Pakistani Rangers earlier. With the political situation in Jammu and Kashmir still not clear, we cannot take a chance”, said a senior defence official.

Some soldiers from Punjab and Rajasthan are expected to replace their counterparts in the Kashmir valley, providing relief to those who had been posted there for more than a year.

Apart from the logistics of arranging railway trains, wagons and heavy vehicles to pull back lakhs of soldiers and equipment from border areas, what is worrying senior army officers is the anti-personnel and anti-tank mines that have been placed in farms and houses in the border areas.

“Some of the mines used will become inoperative once the cells die, but those which do not use cells to explode are the most dangerous ones. It will take months, if not years, to clear the fields of such killers. No matter how many we remove, some will always remain embedded and kill people and cattle,” a senior army officer said.

The civil administration in Ferozepur and Amritsar has asked the army to clear the mines before they pull back from the border. “We cannot do it ourselves. It is the army’s job,” a district official in Amritsar said.

While the army will take some time to hand over the border outposts to the BSF as clearing mines is expected to be laborious work, the air force has already moved many squadrons to peacetime locations.

Soldiers have welcomed the pullback decision as many of them have not gone on leave since the mobilisation took place during Operation Parakram.

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