India, China Begin Troop Withdrawal From Contested Border

India, China Begin Troop Withdrawal From Contested Border

SRINAGAR, India (AP) -- China and India have been pulling back front-line troops along disputed portions of their mountain border where they have been in a standoff for months, officials in both countries said.

The troops started the disengagement on Wednesday at the southern and northern bank of Pangong Lake in the Ladakh region, according to the officials.

India and China will remove forward deployments in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner,” Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament on Thursday.

China's Defense Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that both sides had started a “synchronized and organized” disengagement.

The tense standoff high in the Karakoram mountains began in early May, when Indian and Chinese soldiers ignored each other's repeated verbal warnings, triggering a yelling match, stone-throwing and even fistfights at the northern bank of Pangong Lake, where contested ridges hump into the glacial lake from eight directions and are referred to as “fingers.”

By June it escalated and spread north in Depsang and Galwan Valley, where India has built an all-weather military road along the disputed frontier and where tensions exploded into hand-to-hand combat with clubs, stones and fists that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. China is believed to also have had casualties, but has not given any details.

Since then, both countries had stationed tens of thousands of their soldiers backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets along the de facto border called Line of Actual Control, or LAC, with troops settling in for the harsh winter.

Each side accused the other of instigating the violence. Their governments started military and diplomatic talks on ending the crisis that has dramatically changed the India-China relationship.

China in its brief statement did not provide details on the disengagement. Singh, India's defense minister, said the “Chinese side will keep its troop presence in the northern bank area to east of Finger 8.”

India claims all eight fingers at the Pangong Lake but its military presence extends up to Finger 3. The area between Fingers 4 and 8 had traditionally been patrolled by both sides before the situation escalated in May.

According to India, Chinese soldiers occupied the area between Fingers 4 and 8 last year. India responded in August by occupying at least three uninhabited mountaintops on the lake's southern bank, leading Beijing to furiously demand that Indian troops withdraw.

“Reciprocally, the Indian troops will be based at their permanent base” near Finger 3, Singh said. “A similar action would be taken in the south bank area by both sides.”

Singh said the two sides also agreed on a “temporary moratorium on military activities" on the lake's northern bank. “Patrolling will be resumed only when both sides reach an agreement in diplomatic and military talks that would be held subsequently,” he said.

The LAC separates Chinese- and Indian-held territories from Ladakh in the west to India's eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims in its entirety. LAC is broken in parts where the Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan border China. It divides areas of physical control rather than territorial claims.

India claims the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin plateau as part of the Ladakh region. According to India, the control line is 3,488 kilometers (2,167 miles) long, while China says it is considerably shorter.

Relations between the two countries have often been strained, partly due to their disputed border. They fought a border war in 1962 that spilled into Ladakh and ended in an uneasy truce. Since then, troops have guarded the undefined border and occasionally brawled. They had agreed not to attack each other with firearms.

But in September, China and India accused each other of sending soldiers into the other's territory and fired warning shots for the first time in 45 years, raising the specter of full-scale military conflict.

India unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory and separated it from disputed Kashmir in August 2019, ending Indian-administered Kashmir's semi-autonomous status. It also vowed to take back the Aksai Chin Plateau.

China was among the first countries to strongly condemn the move at international forums including the U.N. Security Council.