External Affairs

Day After Surgical Strikes: Fate of Captured Indian Soldier Uncertain, Sri Lanka Pulls Out of SAARC Summit

New Delhi: Director General Military Operations (DGMO), Ranbir Singh salutes after the Press Conferences along with External Affairs Spokesperson Vikas Swarup, in New Delhi on Thursday. India conducted Surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Kashmir on Wednesday night. PTI Photo by Shirish Shete (PTI9_29_2016_000022B) *** Local Caption ***

New Delhi: Director General Military Operations (DGMO), Ranbir Singh salutes after the Press Conferences along with External Affairs Spokesperson Vikas Swarup, in New Delhi on Thursday. India conducted Surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Kashmir on Wednesday night. Credit: PTI

New Delhi:  A day after India claimed to have conducted ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control, the fate of the Indian soldier in Pakistani custody still hangs in the balance, as Pakistan continues to maintain that there was only heavy border firing and formally postponed the SAARC summit after Sri Lanka became the fifth country to pull out of the regional jamboree.

The Indian government claimed on Friday (September 30) that it was making efforts to recover the soldier who apparently “inadvertently” strayed across the border on the same day as the surgical strikes were conducted on seven terror launch pads.

“All attempts are being made to secure his release,” home minister Rajnath Singh said after a meeting to discuss the situation.

The Pakistani media had earlier claimed that an Indian solider had been captured and eight others killed in heavy cross-border firing. The Indian army then issued a statement late Thursday night that a soldier from the 37 Rashtriya Rifles had “inadvertently crossed over” in the Mendhar sector and the Pakistani DGMO had been informed about the incident.

So far, none of the statements issued by the Pakistan government related to India’s surgical strikes mention the capture of any soldier.

SAARC postponed

On Friday, Pakistan formally postponed the SAARC summit with a statement deploring India’s withdrawal, but with no reference to allegations made Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Earlier in the day, Sri Lanka had become the fifth country to state that the “environment is not conducive” to hold a meeting of the regional group.

Colombo pointed out that the principle of unanimity, the basis of the SAARC charter, also “applies to the convening of meetings of Heads of State or Government of SAARC Member States as well”.

Implicitly supporting India, the Sri Lankan government also condemned “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and stresses in this regard, the need to deal with the issue of terrorism in the region in a decisive manner”.

The Pakistani statement announcing the postponement, however, ignored all such announcements by other south Asian countries, besides India.

“India’s decision to abstain from the Summit on the basis of unfounded assumptions on the Uri incident is a futile effort to divert attention of the world from the atrocities perpetrated by India in the Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir,” said the statement released by the Pakistan foreign ministry.

Terming it as a violation of the SAARC charter which doesn’t allow bilateral issues to be raised at the multilateral forum, Pakistan said that decision to “derail the Summit effectively contradicts Prime Minister Modi’s own call to fight against poverty in the region”.

Indicating that it will not give up its hosting job, Pakistan added that “new set of dates will be announced soon, through the Chair of SAARC (Nepal)”.

India responded to Pakistan’s statement about postponement by saying that Islamabad had been “compelled to recognise the regional sentiment against terrorism”.

Nepal also announced in Kathmandu that it was clear that even if one country withdrew from the summit, it could not be held. Nepal government also appeal for the right environment to be created for the summit to be held, as its indefinite postponement will not be good for the region. Kathmandu hoped that the host country, that is Pakistan, would make special efforts towards the creation of such an environment.’

Pakistan’s denials

Meanwhile, Pakistan Prime Minister chaired a meeting of the Federal cabinet, which “rejected” India’s claims of carrying out ‘surgical strikes’.

“The Cabinet deplored the provocative statements of the Indian leadership alleging Pakistan for the Uri attack, without any evidence. The false Indian accusations were completely rejected,” said a read-out of the meeting. Interestingly, there was no repeat of Pakistan’s official position that the Uri attack was a false flag operation by India to deflect attention from human rights violation in Kashmir.

“The Prime Minister reaffirmed that Pakistan’s commitment for peace must not be construed as weakness. In case of any aggression or violation of LoC, Pakistan will take all necessary steps to protect its people and territorial integrity,” the Pakistani statement read in conclusion.

With Pakistan still arguing that the September 29 early morning surgical strike was just heavy cross-border firing, the statement gives no indication if Islamabad is ready to raise the ante against India.

Meanwhile, Pakistan foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary, along with the Director General (Military Operations) briefed Islamabad-based ambassadors of China, France, US, UK and Russia about India’s ‘surgical strikes’. On Thursday, Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar had held a special briefing for 25 foreign envoys, including those from the P-5 countries.

The Pakistani government statement on the briefing noted that DGMO conveyed that there were anti-infiltration mechanisms in place on border which would have stopped any Indian forces attempting to cross over. “He informed about layers of fencing, barbed wires, lighting, border posts, bunkers etc., on the LoC, which ensure that no infiltration takes place,” it stated.

Chaudhary conveyed “serious concerns over increased Indian aggression and belligerence especially during the last few days which could also be seen in multiple public statements made by the Indian Prime Minister.”

“The Foreign Secretary informed the Ambassadors that Pakistan remains the major victim of terrorism, including State terrorism,” it added

As the governments sparred verbally, media organisations on both sides of the India-Pakistan border joined the fray.

Pakistani news channel ARY News, broadcast a video allegedly showing the bodies of the Indian soldiers. Indian Army sources termed this as “black propaganda” and said the pictures were “fake”.

Although while announcing the surgical strike yesterday Indian DGMO Lt Gen Ranbir Singh had said no casualty had been suffered by the Indian side, army sources confirmed that one team member received “minor injury during exfiltration”. However, it was pointed out that the injury was not due to “any enemy and terrorist action”.

Support from neighbours

Afghanistan was the first South Asian neighbour to came out strongly in favour of the surgical strikes. “Pakistan can’t stay in a constant state of denial and cannot remain unanswered,” Afghan envoy to India Shaida Abdali told reporters.

Abdali added that there was “no doubt that [the] Pakistan state sponsors terror”. “If terror groups exist, self-defence in the form of action we saw, will continue,” he said.

Afghanistan, along with Bhutan and Bangladesh, had joined India in a coordinated move on September 27 to pull out from the SAARC summit in Islamabad over Pakistan’s role in fomenting terror groups.

Muted response from US

The US response continued to be muted, favouring the Indian position and resisting Pakistan’s effort to raise the profile of the Kashmir dispute.

At a press briefing on Thursday, US state department spokesperson John Kirby rebuffed questions to describe Indian surgical strikes on Pakistan-occupied territory as being a “escalatory”.

When asked if the Indian action escalates tensions, Kirby said he refused to “get into characterising each and every step along the way there”. Earlier, he described the attack on the Indian army brigade headquarters at Uri as “horrific”.

Kirby also added that the US wanted to see “increased cooperation against what is a very shared common threat for both countries, and to see steps being taken to deal with it by all sides”. This was an implicit support for India’s narrative about the surgical strikes, which New Delhi had said was only meant as a pre-emptive action against terrorist launchpads across the border.

Meanwhile, the co-chairs of the US Senate’s India Caucus wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemning the Uri attack and expressed concern about its cross-border provenance.

“We are greatly concerned about initial indications that the perpetrators of this attack were Pakistani and that the attack emanated from Pakistan. If true, this attack would be just the latest in a series of deadly attacks in India conducted by Pakistan-based terrorist groups,” said the letter written by Senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner.

It said that Pakistan’s “possible involvement in this attack underscores our broader concern about Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a pillar of its foreign policies towards Afghanistan and India”.

It termed the operation of terror groups such as the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-i-Taiban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad within Pakistan as “unacceptable”. The duo promised that they will work within Congress to “pressure Pakistan to end any association with these terrorist groups targeting India, put a stop to their cross-border incursions, and take active and immediate steps to reign in homegrown terrorists”.

Russian reaction

Coming out tacitly in support of India, the Russian foreign ministry said that it expected the Pakistan government to take “effective steps in order to stop the activities of terrorist groups in the territory of the country”.

“We stand for decisive struggle against terrorism in all its manifestations,” it added in a statement issued on Friday evening. Moscow expressed concern with the “aggravation lately of the situation along the line of control between India and Pakistan”.

There was, however, no direct mention of the ‘surgical strikes’ that India had claimed to conduct, but Pakistan rejected.

Effectively telling Pakistan not to take any retaliatory steps, Russia also called on “the parties not to allow any escalation of tension and to settle the existing problems by political and diplomatic means through negotiations”.

China’s balancing act

Beijing also called on both India and Pakistan to “exercise restraint and avoid further escalating tensions”. “It is hoped that the two sides can properly settle disputes through dialogue and consultation to cool down the situation,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang in answer to a question about India’s ‘surgical strikes’.

Earlier, he said that China as a “neighbor and friend to both India and Pakistan, we are concerned about the tension and rivalry between them that has lasted several days”.

“Since India-Pakistan relations were strained, China has been in touch with the two sides, urging them to exercise restraint, strengthen dialogues, and properly settle relevant disputes. China will continue with its efforts to promote peace talks in a proper way in light of the development on the ground,” added Geng.

In comparison to Russia or US pronouncements, there was no reference in the Chinese remarks about the need to fight terrorism.