The Indian Army has begun a rigourous verification process to monitor the withdrawal of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from friction points along theLine of Actual Control(LAC) in eastern Ladakh even as a complicated disengagement plan moved forward in Hot Springs and Gogra, where the two armies are working to create a 4km buffer zone between troops within a 24-hour time frame, four officials familiar with the developments said on Tuesday evening.
The PLA has withdrawn up to 2km from Patrolling Point 15 (Hot Springs) and a similar retreat is expected to be completed at PP-17 (Gogra) by Wednesday evening, with the Indian Army pulling back proportionately. This is based on an understanding reached last week by top Indian and Chinese military commanders on a phased de-escalation of the ongoing border conflict in the Ladakh theatre, said one of the officials cited above, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The two armies have already created a4km buffer zonein Galwan Valley, the site of a deadly clash which left 20 Indian and an unconfirmed number of Chinese soldiers dead on June 15, said a second official.
The creation of buffer zones will temporarily restrict the patrolling activities of both armies in the region. While some experts saw this as a necessary step, others cautioned that the temporary curtailing of patrolling rights should not become a long-term feature undermining Indian presence and control.
Hindustan Times reported on Tuesday that the PLA had withdrawn up to 1.5 km from friction areas in Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra, and the Indian Army also pulled back proportionately. A minor thinning of PLA soldiers has been noticed at the sensitive Finger Area near Pangong Tso.
Satellite images on Tuesday appeared to confirm the PLA pullback from Galwan Valley. “The images clearly indicate that the PLA has moved back in Galwan Valley. It’s a positive step but constant verification and strict vigil are a must,” said Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd), a former director general of military operations. Bhatia reviewed the images for HT.
Satellite images from June 28 and July 6 released on Tuesday by Maxar, a US-based satellite imagery company, show the Chinese expansion at the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh has been removed as part of the disengagement procedure.
The disengagement effort involves rival troops pulling back a specified distance from face-off sites, with further retreat taking place in phases as the complex plan progresses on a verifiable basis on the ground every 72 hours by both sides. It also entails the phased withdrawal of weapons and equipment to a mutually agreed distance, and finally the restoration of status quo ante (the situation as it existed in early April).
“The army is keeping a close watch on the ongoing pull back by the PLA. It’s extremely critical to verify and reverify every stage of the disengagement process to avoid surprises,” said the second official, who asked not to be identified.
The verification process launched by the army involves unmanned aerial vehicles, other aerial means of surveillance and satellite imagery of the areas, said a third official.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is already projecting its capabilities of carrying out day-and-night, all-weather combat missions in Ladakh, with front-line fighter jets, attack helicopters, and multi-mission choppers getting airborne for demanding night-time missions from a forward airbase in the area, people familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
On the creation of buffer zones, and the curtailment of patrolling, experts had a mixed response.
“The zones of separation will eliminate the possibility of violent face-offs. It’s best