June 1999 News


Govt rules out safe passage for Intruders

3 June 1999
The Hindu

REACTING to public criticism that the Indian government was going soft on an aggressive Pakistan, the prime minister and defence minister did a complete volte face on their reported statements about considering "safe passage" to intruders in Kargil. A spokesman from the ministry of external affairs on Thursday declared there was no question of "safe passage" for intruders who have "committed armed aggression". "The prime minister said he was misquoted and the defence minister was quoted out of context," the spokesman said. Meanwhile, in a diplomatic breakthrough, Pakistan undertook a goodwill gesture late on Thursday evening by releasing Flt. Lt. Nachiketa, from captivity this evening.

On Wednesday, the MEA, interpreting the prime minister’s statement in Mumbai on the "safe passage" offer by India, said it would be "prudent" for the intruders to leave before they are eliminated. Mr Vajpayee’s statement was a follow up on the defence minister, George Fernandes’ reported comment the day before that India could consider safe passage for the intruders if they opted for it. This created a stir among not merely the political parties, but even strategic and military experts and the public, who reacted almost in outrage. Former DGMO, General V R Raghavan, fighting for words yesterday could only describe the offer as "extraordinary", while former air chief S K Mehra called it "ridiculous". Mr Fernandes has been under fire over the past week.

First,he gave a virtual clean chit to the Pakistan government and ISI for the current operations. Mr Fernandes repeated this assertion ad infinitum over the next few days evoking disbelief and indignation in equal measure. The general opinion was, even if Nawaz Sharif had been unaware of the scale of the intrusion until it became operational, it was in bad form for the defence minister to be saying this when his own men were battling the enemy in extremely inhospitable conditions. His absence at the funeral of Sq Leader Ajay Ahuja was commented on.

Finally, observers felt, he’d compounded his folly by even admitting to considering safe passage. To be fair, Mr Fernandes’ comment was not a unilateral one and was a response to a question specifically about "safe passage". To which Mr Fernandes had answered, everything could be considered. This was then interpreted by the charitable as being on the lines of the PM’s statement that the intruders should go, "dead or alive." It didn’t stop Mr Fernandes from being attacked by opponents. But if his words are dismissed as one by a habitual loose cannon, the PM’s comment gave it the seal of authenticity.

The Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS) which met this morning took the decision to deny the statements, (even if they were on record), after what sources termed an unusually stormy CCS meeting. While Gen Afsar Karim said yesterday only on unconditional surrender to the Indian army could the question on returning them be considered, defence sources admitted that on the ground, it is impossible to implement. " Their comrades are dying and they will never agree to anything of the sort," said a senior defence official. However, a breath of caution was sounded by other experts, who believe that such an offer could be made if Pakistan withdrew their men voluntarily. Flushing out the intruders will take longer than estimated and involve huge costs to the Indian armed forces. As it is, the army chief said maintaining posts in Kargil would cost three to five times that in Siachen which costs Rs 3.2 crore daily. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s goodwill gesture comes on the heels of an announcement from Islamabad that Mr Aziz could come on June 7 for talks to Delhi. The government is yet to respond. Mr Aziz today said Pakistan’s perspectives and assessments of the ground situation in Kargil is different from India’s. This would necessitate, he said, expansion of the UN monitoring group.

India has disagreed on involving the UN in anything though the Line of Control (LoC) was drawn between India, Pakistan and the UN. Pakistan’s arguments are likely to be first, allocation of responsibility on India for escalating the conflict, straying across the LoC and asking for international mediation. Today, Mr Aziz was reported as saying the LoC was not clearly defined in a number of places, especially in the Kargil sector, so things had to be clarified in talks with India, he said. Going back a trifle from a previously held Pakistani position that they had no knowledge of the militants, Mr Aziz, obviously preparing the ground for the evidence certain to be produced in Delhi said it was India’s duty to keep the intruders off the LoC, while admitting that militants to get religious and military training in Pakistan.

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