December 1999 News

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Indian Troops Man Himalayan Frontline

BBC

By Mike Wooldridge in Kargil BBC

December 6: Winter is descending with a vengeance on the summer battleground along the Line of Control. As investigations continue into how Pakistani-backed forces slipped across here earlier this year, India has put several thousand extra, specially-equipped troops on the Kargil front this winter. For two months now, helicopters have been ferrying men and supplies to what must rate as one of the world's most gruelling military assignments - a string of posts at altitudes of up to 5,000m (16,500 feet).

In temperatures already plummeting to -40C they set out for up to two or three days - and nights - on patrol. And there is another hazard - the withdrawing forces left mines, not all yet cleared. "The danger of landmines is always there and now with the covering of snow, they have become more difficult to detect," says the leader of a patrol.

Price of vigilance

In recent days a second Kargil has been threatened by one Kashmiri militant group. For the Indian army, the price of the increased vigilance is a massive operation to supply the new posts for the entire winter. Six months ago India was fighting some of its toughest battles in three decades - to regain control of these mountaintops and ridges. Now it is a cold war in every sense and, as officers say here, the main enemy is nature. What no one knows is how many winters will see this scale of military presence, along the dividing line with Pakistan. The helicopter is the lifeline. A soldier who developed acute chest pains during the night is evacuated to base from one of the high altitude posts the next morning.

Some of the posts are above 5,000 metres (16,500 feet), testing acclimatisation procedures, stamina and morale to the fullest extent. "Both sides are preparing for the winter, which we know is going to be very severe," says Colonel S V E David of the Indian army. "We've got to be well prepared as far as stocking of our posts are concerned, as well as ensuring the men who are there are motivated as well as prepared to take on any misadventure from the other side," he said.

Harsh

In the shadow of today's military stalemate on the heights above, the town of Drass came under the heaviest shelling during the Kargil conflict. Its citizens took refuge elsewhere, like other civilians on the front line. They are back but worried about the coming months. "Until August we were refugees so we couldn't do our stocking for the winter as we usually do," said Mohammad Amin, who teaches in Drass.

"The passes are closing earlier this year and we expect a harsh winter," he said. A few months back the drums of war echoed around here. People here say this year has left its legacy of uncertainty

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