20 Indian soldiers killed in confrontation with China in Himalayas
It is the 1st deadly incident between the countries in nearly a half-century
The Indian Army has raised the death toll in a clash with Chinese troops on a disputed Himalayan border to 20 Indian soldiers.
The army said in a statement late Tuesday that the two sides "have disengaged" from the disputed Galwan area, where they clashed overnight on Monday.
The army originally reported that three Indian soldiers had died, but later said 17 additional soldiers succumbed to injuries they suffered in the sub-zero temperatures of the high-altitude terrain.
The incident is the first deadly confrontation between the two Asian giants since 1975.
The Indian army said in an earlier statement that a "violent faceoff" took place in Galwan Valley in the Ladakh region on Monday night, "with casualties on both sides."
"The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers," the statement said. "Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation."
China, for its part, accused Indian forces along the border of carrying out "provocative attacks" on its troops, leading to "serious physical conflicts" between the sides.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian gave no details on any casualties on the Chinese side but said Tuesday that China had strongly protested the incident while still being committed to maintaining "peace and tranquillity" along the disputed and heavily militarized border.
"But what is shocking is that on June 15, the Indian troops seriously violated the consensus of the two sides, crossed the border illegally twice and carried out provocative attacks on Chinese personnel, resulting in serious physical conflicts between the two border forces," Zhao said.
Long-simmering border dispute
Thousands of soldiers from the two countries, backed by armoured trucks and artillery, have been facing off just a few hundred metres apart for more than a month in the Ladakh region near Tibet. Army officers and diplomats have held a series of meetings to try to end the impasse with no breakthrough.
Indian authorities have officially maintained near-total silence on the issues related to the confrontation, and it was not immediately clear how the three Indian soldiers died.
The tense standoff started in early May, when Indian officials said that Chinese soldiers crossed the boundary in Ladakh at three different points, erecting tents and guard posts and ignoring verbal warnings to leave. That triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and fist fights, much of it replayed on television news channels and social media.
China has sought to downplay the confrontation while saying the two sides were communicating through both their front-line military units and their respective embassies to resolve issues.
The disputed border covers nearly 3,500 kilometres of frontier that the two countries call the Line of Actual Control.
Though skirmishes aren't new along the disputed frontier, the standoff at Ladakh's Galwan Valley, where India is building a strategic road connecting the region to an airstrip close to China, has escalated in recent weeks.
India and China fought a border war in 1962 that also spilled into Ladakh. The two countries have been trying to settle their border dispute since the early 1990s, without success.
Since then, soldiers from the two sides have frequently faced off along their long frontier, which stretches from Ladakh in the north to the Indian state of Sikkim in the northeast.
The Indian army statement said the "violent faceoff" occurred "during the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley."
India unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from disputed Kashmir in August 2019. China was among the handful of countries to strongly condemn the move, raising it at international forums including the UN Security Council.
Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, a former head of the Indian military's Northern Command, under which Kashmir and Ladakh fall, said the incident was the "most serious confrontation" between India and China since 1975, when Chinese troops killed four Indian soldiers in an ambush in the Twang region of northeastern India's Arunachal Pradesh state.
"It's a very complicated and serious situation, and it will take real, hard negotiating skills to resolve this," Hooda said.
Lt. Gen. Vinod Bhatia, a former director-general of Indian military operations, said the incident was "serious but local."
"Such incidents can happen, particularly when [opposing] soldiers are in such proximity," he said.