SRINAGAR – Indian and Chinese soldiers brawled last week along the countries' disputed border, Indian officials said Monday, as a monthslong standoff between the nuclear-armed rivals continued.
The clash in the Naku La area of Sikkim came four days before the countries held a ninth round of talks on Sunday on ending tensions in another disputed border area in the remote Ladakh region.
The Indian army described the clash at Naku La as “a minor face off” and said it “was resolved by local commanders as per established protocols.”
An army statement did not provide any other details, but asked media “to refrain from overplaying or exaggerating” the incident.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said he did not have information to provide on the incident but urged India “not to take any unilateral action that may further complicate or exacerbate the border tension.”
Since a deadly clash last year, soldiers from the two sides have brawled occasionally and fired shots for the first time in decades, breaking a longstanding agreement not to use firearms during border confrontations.
Two Indian security officials said at least 18 Chinese soldiers tried to cross into Indian-claimed territory at Naku La last Wednesday night and were blocked by Indian soldiers, leading to clashes with sticks and stones. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue and in keeping with government regulations, said soldiers on both sides were carrying firearms but did not use them.
The two officials said over a dozen Indian soldiers and at least eight Chinese soldiers received minor injuries.
There was no independent confirmation of the incident.
Both sides rushed more soldiers to the area in an “aggressive deployment" that swelled the number of personnel to hundreds, the officials said.
The leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, accused China of “expanding its occupation into Indian territory” and questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence.
Modi “hasn’t said the word ‘China’ for months,” Gandhi said in a tweet Monday. “Maybe he can start by saying the word ‘China.’”
India and China have been locked in a tense military standoff since May high in the Karakoram mountains, with troops settling in for the harsh winter. Both sides have mobilized tens of thousands of soldiers, artillery and fighter aircraft along the fiercely contested border known as the Line of Actual Control, or LAC, that 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.
The frontier is broken in parts where the Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan border China, and where Sikkim, the site of the latest brawl, is sandwiched.
The LAC divides areas of physical control rather than territorial claims. Despite more than three dozen rounds of talks over the years and multiple meetings between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, they are nowhere near settling the dispute.
The standoff began last May with a fierce brawl, and exploded into hand-to-hand combat with clubs, stones and fists on June 15 that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. China is believed to also have had casualties, but has not given any details.
Indian and Chinese army commanders met for the ninth round of talks after a gap of 2 1/2 months in Ladakh on Sunday but neither side released any details of the outcome.
Saaliq reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Beijing contributed to this report.