x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pakistan and India in new talks over Siachen standoff

Pakistan and India will begin a fresh round of talks to discuss demilitarisation of a border area where a massive avalanche in April killed 126 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians, prompting the Pakistan army to call for a quick settlement.

An avalanche killed 126 Pakistan soldiers and 11 civilians at Siachen glacier in April.
An avalanche killed 126 Pakistan soldiers and 11 civilians at Siachen glacier in April.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan and India will begin a fresh round of talks to discuss demilitarisation of a border area where a massive avalanche in April killed 126 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians, prompting the Pakistan army to call for a quick settlement.

The military standoff at Siachen glacier - the world's highest conflict zone - is regarded as one of the least contentious issues bedevilling ties between the countries.

But mistrust and domestic political pressures have, so far, held back an agreement on the withdrawal of troops from the land in Siachen where they have faced off since 1984.

The deaths from the avalanche have put the spotlight again on what critics say is one of the world's most pointless military deployments in a region where more troops have been killed by accidents than combat.

Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Kayani called for the demilitarisation of Siachen after the avalanche wiped out an entire military base on April 7.

Defence secretaries of the two countries will meet behind closed doors in Islamabad for two days to discuss the region.

"This is not a difficult issue. All they need is the political will and flexibility to resolve it," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general.

The two South Asian countries have long recognised the need to remove troops from the peaks as high as 6,000 metres.

Military experts say Siachen is strategically insignificant. Nonetheless, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Pakistani and Indian troops are deployed there, costing the countries hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It's all madness," said Mahmood Shah, a retired brigadier who served in the region in the early 1990s. "We are there because of them [Indians]. Otherwise it has no significance."

While the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir remained the core dispute, Pakistan and India came close to resolving their differences over Siachen and Sir Creek estuary before New Delhi called off talks in 2008 after Pakistan-based militants attacked Mumbai, killing 166 people.

The talks resumed last year.

"We are not expecting any wonders in the talks. But we want these talks to continue and it is good that they are continuing," a government official involved in diplomacy with India said.

Both sides are trying to find a solution that would allow them to withdraw troops, but New Delhi wants Pakistan to officially authenticate positions they hold before they pullout.

Pakistan says it is willing to do so but it should not be taken as a final endorsement of India's claim over the glacier, which Islamabad sees as a disputed territory.

India also is wary of pulling out its troops particularly after Pakistan-backed Islamist militants invaded the Kargil Heights in Kashmir in 1999.

Despite the animosity between India and Pakistan, the glacier issue can be resolved, the Pakistani official said.

"We have worries that if we vacate our positions, they will occupy," the official said. "But we can develop a mechanism to check such violations. It is not impossible."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae