Intense negotiations through diplomatic and military channels, including three rounds of talks between senior Army officers, led to the release of 10 Indian soldiers detained by the Chinese side after the violent brawl on June 15 in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, people familiar with developments said on Friday on the condition of anonymity.
The soldiers were being debriefed by senior officers at Leh, the headquarters of the Army’s 14 Corps, on the over 60 hours they spent in Chinese custody, said one of the persons cited above. “There’s a protocol for debriefing and that’s being followed,” he said.
Another person said the 10 soldiers, including two majors and two captains, were returned to the Indian side on Thursday evening, three days after the violent face-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that left 20 Indian soldiers, including a colonel, dead.
“The debriefing is critical. It will be a formatted military narration of what they went through in Chinese captivity. This will form the basis of what really happened during those three days and how was the military posturing and conduct of the people who detained them,” said Lieutenant General AS Lamba (retd), a former army vice chief.
The negotiations for their release were kept tightly under wraps due to concerns for the safety of the soldiers amid the heightened tensions between the two sides, said the first person cited above.
There was no official word on the development. All that the Indian Army and the external affairs ministry said on Thursday was that no Indian soldiers were “missing in action”.
“The release of the Indian soldiers reflects Chinese intent. It perhaps shows the Chinese want to de-escalate and disengage,” said Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd), a former director-general of military operations.
However, a top retired army commander, who did not want to be identified, said China had already achieved what it set out to achieve – gaining control over the Galwan Valley and the strategic feature Finger 4 near Pangong Tso Lake, where a significant Chinese buildup has taken place over the last six weeks.
“The gesture of returning the soldiers is a message to the world that they [the Chinese] are not the aggressors and they have returned people who intruded into their territory,” he said.
The release of the 10 soldiers figured in three rounds of talks between Indian and Chinese delegations, led by major generals, near Patrol Point 14 in the Galway Valley between Tuesday and Thursday. Major General Abhijit Bapat, commander of Karu-based 3 Infantry Division, and his Chinese counterpart met for the third time on Thursday.
The meetings were part of ongoing military engagements to de-escalate the situation and to disengage on the disputed border. The two senior military officers have met seven times since the stand-off began in early May.
The 10 soldiers were medically examined and found to be in good health, said the second person cited above.
Monday night’s seven-hour brutal clash involving over 500 rival troops also marked the first time India has suffered combat fatalities in an incident involving Chinese troops since 1975.
Following reports that an unspecified number of soldiers were unaccounted for after Monday night’s clash, the Army had on Thursday only said that none of its personnel were missing in action.
“It is clarified that there are no Indian troops missing in action,” the army said in a statement. An army spokesperson had said the statement was in reference to an article published in The New York Times on Wednesday.
Asked about the specific issue of the status of Indian soldiers after the clash on June 15, external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava told a weekly media briefing on Thursday: “This has been clarified by the army earlier today afternoon that there are no Indian troops missing in action.”
China has so far not acknowledged any casualties while 76 Indian soldiers were also injured. The Army has said 43 Chinese were killed or seriously injured, citing radio intercepts and other intelligence. The Chinese fatal casualties reportedly include a colonel-ranked officer but HT could not independently verify this.
India has attributed the clash of June 15 to Chinese forces crossing to the Indian side of the LAC and attempting to build a structure. It has also rejected China’s People’s Liberation Army’s claim of sovereignty over the Galwan Valley.