The Indian and Chinese militaries accused each other of open fire during a confrontation late on Monday evening near Chushul, close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.
The face-off took place a few kilometres south of Helmet Top, a dominating hill feature that India occupied on August 30 to prevent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from illegally seizing it. In that operation, an Indian soldier of the Special Frontier Force was killed and another seriously injured.
Sources say, the Monday incident was triggered when PLA soldiers opened fire while advancing threateningly towards an Indian position. When the PLA refused warnings to stop, Indian soldiers fired shots in the air.
Sources say there were no gunshot injuries, since both sides fired in the air. However, there were injuries on both sides in the aggressive scuffle that followed.
This was the first time in 45 years that firearms were discharged on the LAC. The last incident was in October 1975, when the Chinese ambushed and killed four jawans of the Assam Rifles on the LAC near Tawang.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Indian Army said, “It was the PLA troops who were attempting to close-in with one of our forward positions along the LAC and when dissuaded by their own troops, PLA troops fired a few rounds in the air in an attempt to intimidate their own troops.”
A diametrically opposite version of events had been presented by the PLA, when its Western Theatre Command spokesperson, Colonel Zhang Shuili, accused the Indian Army of “illegally crossing the line (LAC) again” in Ladakh.
“During the operation, the Indian Army blatantly fired threats (sic) to the patrol personnel of the Chinese border guards who had made representations. The Chinese border guards were forced to take countermeasures to stabilise the situation on the ground,” said the Chinese spokesperson.
Terming this a “serious provocation of a very bad nature”, he stated, “We request the Indian side to immediately stop dangerous actions, withdraw soldiers who had crossed the LAC, strictly restrain frontline troops and strictly investigate and punish personnel who fired shots so that similar incidents do not occur again.”
Emphatically rejecting these accusations, the Indian Army stated, “At no stage has the Indian Army transgressed across the LAC or resorted to use of any aggressive means, including firing… It is the PLA that has been blatantly violating agreements and carrying out aggressive manoeuvres.”
“The statement by the Western Theatre Command is an attempt to mislead their domestic and international audience,” stated the Indian Army.
Sounding a clear warning, it went on, “The Indian Army is committed to maintaining peace and tranquillity. [However it] is also determined to protect national integrity and sovereignty at all costs.”
The confrontation took place just three days after the Indian and Chinese Defence Ministers met in Moscow on Friday; a couple of days before the two Foreign Ministers, S Jaishankar and Wang Yi, are due to meet in Moscow; and even as brigade commanders from both sides are holding regular meetings at Chushul-Moldo.
This indicates how volatile the ground situation is, says a retired Indian general who has commanded in the Ladakh sector.
“Even apex level political engagement is insufficient to prevent violence breaking out,” he adds. “When soldiers are deployed face-to-face, the ground situation can escalate at any time.”