Satellite images suggest Chinese activity at Himalayan border with India before clash
By Simon Scarr and Sanjeev Miglani
SINGAPORE / NEW DELHI (Reuters) - In the days before the most violent border conflict between India and China in decades, China brought in machines, cut a trail into a Himalayan mountain slope, and may even have blocked a river, suggesting satellite imagery.
The pictures taken on Tuesday, one day after the soldiers' hand-to-hand combat in the ice-cold Galwan Valley, show an increase in activity compared to a week earlier.
India said 20 soldiers were killed in a deliberate attack by Chinese troops on Monday evening when senior commanders agreed to defuse tensions on the line of actual control (LAC) or the controversial and poorly defined border between its nuclear-armed neighbors.
China rejected the allegations and accused Indian soldiers on the front line of provoking the conflict that took place at an ice-cold height of 4,300 meters in the western Himalayas.
The 4,056 km long border between India and China runs through glaciers, snow deserts and rivers in the west to densely forested mountains in the east.
The Galwan Valley is a dry, inhospitable area in which some soldiers are stationed on steep ridges. It is considered important because it leads to the Aksai Chin, a controversial plateau that is claimed by India but controlled by China.
The satellite imagery, taken by the Earth imaging company Planet Labs and obtained from Reuters, shows signs that the valley's landscape is changing due to widening of traces, earth movement and river crossings, an expert said.
The pictures show machines along the bare mountains and in the Galwan River.
"When you look at it on the planet, it looks like China is building roads in the valley and possibly daming the river," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Non-Proliferation Program for East Asia at California's Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
"There are a lot of vehicles on both sides (of the LAC) - although there seems to be a lot more on the Chinese side. I count 30-40 Indian vehicles and well over 100 vehicles on the Chinese side."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was not aware of the details on the ground, but reiterated that the Indian army had entered Chinese territory in several places in the past few days and should be withdrawn.
The clash was the worst since 1967. Since the beginning of May, soldiers have been standing on the border, which, according to India, has been invaded by Chinese troops and has established temporary structures. The confrontation turned into a fatal brawl on Monday.
The fighting was sparked by a dispute over two Chinese tents and lookout towers, which India said were built on its side of the LAK, sources from the Indian government said in New Delhi and on the Indian side of the border in the Ladakh region .
China tried to build a "structure" in the Galwan Valley on India's LAK side, even after military officials reached agreement on de-escalation on June 6, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told China's high-ranking diplomat Wang Yi on a phone call on Wednesday, the Indian State Department said. It wasn't immediately clear what structure he was referring to.
The problem occurred when an Indian patrol visited the area near a ridge to verify a Chinese claim that its troops had withdrawn from the LAC, the two government sources said, aware of the military situation.
The Chinese troops had become thinner, leaving the two tents and small observation posts behind. The Indian party destroyed the towers and burned the tents.
The satellite images show possible debris from the observation posts on Tuesday morning on a ridge on India's LAC. The picture taken a week earlier had no such structure.
A large group of Chinese soldiers arrived and faced Indian troops, led by Colonel Santosh Babu. According to one of the sources, they were lightly armed according to the LAC's rules of engagement.
India and China have not exchanged shots at the border since 1967, despite occasional flare-ups. Soldiers are instructed to keep their rifles on their backs.
It was not clear what happened next, but the two sides soon collided, with the Chinese using iron bars and truncheons with spikes, one of the sources said.
Colonel Babu was one of the 20 victims, they said. Other Indian troops were rushed in and the confrontation turned into an hour-long fight that eventually involved up to 900 soldiers, the source said. Nevertheless, no shots were fired on either side.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao rejected the Indian version of the events. "The rights and injustices of this incident are very clear. The responsibility does not lie with China."
(GRAPHICS: Satellite images of the Galwan Valley - https://graphics.reuters.com/INDIA-CHINA/BATTLE/yxmvjkzxwpr/index.html)
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Crossley in Beijing, Fayaz Bukhari in Srinagar and Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi; edited by Nick Macfie)
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