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Sunday, January 31, 1999 Published at 06:03 GMT

World: South Asia

Battle in the heavens

Both sides regularly exchange artillery fire

By Islamabad Correspondent Owen Bennett-Jones

The highest battlefield on Earth, the Siachen glacier is located beyond the stern end of the line of control that defines the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones reports from "the highest battlefield on earth"
The conditions are so extreme that the bitterly cold weather claims more lives than the frequent artillery exchanges. The air is so thin that the trajectory of the shells is unpredictable.

Both the Indian and Pakistani governments concede that supplying troops on such a remote and inaccessible battlefield is a hugely costly exercise.

[ image: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif: Expensive commitment]
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif: Expensive commitment
On a rare visit to the Siachen glacier Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told me: "To maintain your troops here is very expensive. I think it is also expensive or maybe even more expensive for India to maintain its troops."

The Prime Minister says he wants a negotiated settlement to the Siachen conflict but previous attempts to find a diplomatic solution have failed. And Nawaz Sharif has vowed that if the talks with India remain deadlocked he will continue to defend every inch of Pakistani territory, however remote and inaccessible it maybe.

Deadly environment

The forward posts on the glacier are over 6,000 metres high, until the 1970s nobody even thought of disputing this place. The Indians army arrived in 1984 and the two sides have been entrenched in the snow ever since.

[ image: A forgotten landscape until the 1980s]
A forgotten landscape until the 1980s
Avalanches and altitude sickness pose a constant danger - soldiers say one moment you can be walking with a man, the next he has vanished down a crevice never to return.

To reach the forward positions involves using special helicopters, normal ones simply can't operate at this kind of altitude. It is an example of how difficult it is to fight to war in this kind of environment and just how ruinously expensive it is for two developing countries.

No winners

General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff says that any settlement on Siachen depends on a solution to Kashmir as whole. "We are not talking of winning a war here, we are talking of the degree of difficulty you create and the casualties and expenditure you incur on the other side.

"We are looking at it from the overall Kashmir point of view. We want a solution to Kashmir," he says.

When he addressed the troops serving on Siachen, Nawaz Sharif told them that history is full of instances in which disputes are not resolved through wars.

Peace talks are due with India in a few weeks time but nobody expects them to make enough progress to bring peace to these valleys and mountains.

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