SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Indian and Chinese soldiers have backed away from the site of a deadly clash last month in the Galwan Valley along the undemarcated border, Indian security officials said, a sign of the countries' progress in disengaging from a months-long standoff.
The two sides also appeared to have dismantled recent construction along the river valley high in the Karakoram mountains, satellite images showed.
Three Indian security officials familiar with the developments said soldiers on both sides have moved back about a kilometer (0.6 mile) from the site of their clash on June 15, when military personnel fought with rocks, clubs and their fists in hand-to-hand combat that left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter and in keeping with government regulations.
The two sides have also moved apart at two locations in the Hot Spring area, out of at least five places where Indian officials said the Chinese had crossed the Line of Actual Control, the area of the border that remains disputed following a 1962 war that ended in an uneasy truce.
They said soldiers continued to stand at close range at two other sites along the 3,380-kilometer (2,100-mile) line of control, at Depsang and Pangong Lake. At the picturesque lake, the Chinese were 8 kilometers (5 miles) within the disputed border area, the officials said.
Satellite images from June 28 appeared to show that the Indians had built a wall on their side of the Galwan Valley and the Chinese had expanded a camp at the end of a long road connected to Chinese military bases farther from the poorly defined border, according to experts.
But images released on Monday by Maxar, a Colorado-based satellite imagery company, showed those recent additions now gone.
“There are no structures or vehicles visible within 1.3 kilometers (0.8 mile) of the LAC in the valley,” said Nathan Ruser, an imagery analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
However, Ruser said satellite images showed a “large tent structure” of about 900 square meters (9,687 square feet) appeared just under a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the Line of Actual Control. The tent did not appear in June 28 images of the same area.
The purpose of the tent and its possible contents, if any, were unclear.
The countries' special representatives on the border issue, Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, agreed in a phone call Sunday that “maintenance of peace and tranquility in the India-China border areas was essential for the further development of our bilateral relations,” and to “complete the ongoing disengagement process along the LAC expeditiously,” India's foreign ministry said in a statement Monday.
The phone call came after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit to a military base in the Indian territory of Ladakh, visiting injured soldiers and praising their bravery.
The face-off began in early May, first at three places including Pangong Lake, and then escalated to two other places in Depsang and Galwan in June.
India and China have blamed each other for provoking the June 15 brawl in the Galwan Valley, the Asian giants' most violent encounter in 45 years, and have staked fresh claims to the area where it occurred.
China's ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, told the Press Trust of India news agency that there were "casualties between the two sides,” but Chinese officials have not detailed any deaths or injuries on their side.
The countries went to war in 1962 over their competing claims to the arid border region, with the conflict spilling over into Ladakh.
Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, a former head of the Indian military’s Northern Command which controls Ladakh, said the beginning of disengagement was a “good, positive step.”
“Good that some stalemate is broken but it’s going to be a long and protracted negotiation for a substantial disengagement at military level. The full de-escalation will be hard bargaining at diplomatic level,” he said.
Hooda said it remained unclear what China wanted to achieve in the standoff.
“I’ll be looking at what Chinese demands are going to be as a cost for complete disengagement. We know neither side will quietly go back,” he said, adding that India hoped to restore “status quo ante, the position the two countries were in April.”
The coming winter would pose an extreme challenge for both sides if the face-off continues, Hooda said. The vast undemarcated border region becomes inhospitable during winter months, when temperatures can drop to minus 50 Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit).
Schmall reported from New Delhi and McNeil reported from Beijing.