Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER
Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER

New Delhi  — The Indian army said on Tuesday that 20 of its soldiers were killed in clashes with Chinese troops at a disputed border site, in a major escalation of a long standoff in the western Himalayas.

In a statement, the army said that 17 critically injured Indian troops succumbed to their wounds, in addition to an officer and two soldiers who had died earlier.

Reports said the troops clashed with iron rods and stones. No shots were fired, an Indian government source said.

Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged in the areas where the clashes took place, the statement said.

China and India traded accusations as to who was to blame for the fighting in Ladakh in the western Himalayas. 

The deaths were the first since the last major border clash in 1967 between the nuclear-armed Asian giants and world's two most populous countries which have not been able to settle the dispute along their vast frontier.

Since early May, hundreds of soldiers have fronted up against each other at three locations, each side accusing the other of trespassing.

On Monday night, a small group of soldiers came to blows in the Galwan Valley, Indian officials said.

"During the de-escalation process under way in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties on both sides," the Indian army said in a statement.

"The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation."

The officer who died was a colonel, the government source said. The two sides had been discussing ways to de-escalate but at some point the People's Liberation Army turned on a group of Indian soldiers, the source said.

"They attacked with iron rods, the commanding officer was grievously injured and fell, and when that happened, more soldiers swarmed to the area and attacked with stones," said the source, who had been briefed on the matter.

The Chinese side brought in reinforcements and the brawl went on for a couple of hours, the source said.

"Both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided had the agreement at the higher level been scrupulously followed by the Chinese side," Indian foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said in a statement.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said there was a serious violation of a consensus reached by the two countries.

"What's shocking is that on June 15, the Indian side severely violated our consensus and twice crossed the border line and provoked and attacked the Chinese forces, causing a violent physical confrontation between the two border forces," Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.

"China is raising strong opposition and stern representations to the Indian side on this," he said. There was no information provided on their casualties.

'Extremely serious'

India and China fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962 and distrust has occasionally led to flare-ups ever since.

"This is extremely, extremely serious, this is going to vitiate whatever dialogue was going on," former Indian army commander DS Hooda said.

Military experts say India has been building roads and airfields to improve connectivity and narrow the gap with China's far superior infrastructure.

At Galwan, India completed a road leading to an airfield last October. The Chinese side has asked India to stop all construction.

India says it is operating on its side of the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border.

The editor-in-chief of China's Global Times newspaper said the Chinese military had suffered losses in the latest clash, though it was unclear whether those were deaths or wounded.

Reuters