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'Pak formally proposed Siachen pullback'

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During his meeting with PM on April 8, President Zardari had made the request for mutual withdrawal of troops: Antony to Lok Sabha

Pakistan President had formally appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a mutual withdrawal of troops from the Siachen Glacier sector. Defence Minister says the request was made on April 8 in New Delhi, a day after an avalanche buried 129 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians at Gyari, the headquarters of a Pakistani battalion near Skardu in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).

While several Pakistani decision-makers, including the army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) chief, Nawaz Sharif, have issued media calls for a mutual withdrawal, only now has it emerged that Pakistan officially broached this proposal with New Delhi.

On Monday, Antony told the Lok Sabha, “In view of the recent avalanche resulting in heavy casualties at Siachen, Pakistan has requested India for withdrawal of their respective troops from the region.”

In his written reply to a parliamentary question, Antony further stated, “The President of Pakistan, during his meeting with Prime Minister on April 8, pointed out the need for all issues in the bilateral relationship, including Sir Creek, Siachen, and Jammu and Kashmir to be addressed. Both leaders felt need to move forward step by step and find pragmatic and mutually acceptable solutions to all those issues.”

A range of Pakistani leaders have supported General Kayani and in calling for a mutual withdrawal from “the Siachen Glacier.” For the Pakistan Army — say Indian experts like Lt Gen P C Katoch, former commander of the Siachen Brigade — an early withdrawal would mask the stinging defeat they suffered here after the Indian Army established itself atop the towering Saltoro Ridge that gives India complete domination over the Glacier.

“The Pakistan Army has been badly beaten on the Siachen Glacier, but they hide that from their public. Kayani, like his predecessors, wants to demilitarise the glacier and end the dispute quickly so that the Pakistani people never get to know,” says Katoch.

Meanwhile, the Siachen dialogue makes little headway. Through 12 rounds of talks, the most recent last May, New Delhi has insisted it will pull back troops only after joint “authentication” of the frontline along the 109-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), as the de facto border is called. The AGPL has never been marked on the ground or on any document accepted by both sides. If Pakistan violated a demilitarisation treaty, says the Indian Army, it would enjoy easier geographical access to Siachen, leaving India at a serious disadvantage.

Pakistan resists “authentication” as a pre-requisite to demilitarisation, ostensibly because that would legitimise the AGPL, and India’s alleged “violation of the Simla Agreement” which restrains both sides from altering the status quo on the border. Pakistan wants demilitarisation, withdrawal and authentication to proceed simultaneously. Last month, after General Kayani’s call for a mutual withdrawal, Islamabad announced it would stick to its traditional position.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, however, has earlier been willing to accommodate Pakistan in a Siachen settlement. In 2005, during a visit to Siachen, he stated he would like to convert Siachen into “a mountain of peace.”

The Siachen became a military flashpoint in April 1984, when the Indian Army occupied Bilafond La, a pass above Siachen, narrowly beating a planned Pakistani occupation of the same pass. Although there has been a ceasefire in place since 2003, most casualties in the 16,000-21,000 battleground take place due to the weather.

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