The hand-to-hand combat lasted hours, on steep, jagged terrain, with iron bars, rocks and fists. Neither side carried guns. Most of the soldiers killed in the worst fighting between India and China in 60 years lost their footing or were knocked from the narrow Himalayan ridge, plunging to their deaths.
India has reacted with shock and caution to the loss of at least 20 soldiers on its disputed border with China, with images of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, burned in Indian cities.
In his first public comments on the dispute, prime minister Narendra Modi led a two-minute silence for the killed soldiers and said India would “defend every stone, every inch of its territory.”
“I would like to assure the nation that the sacrifice of our jawans [troops] will not be in vain,” said Modi, speaking at a televised meeting of India’s chief ministers. “For us, the unity and sovereignty of the country is the most important.”
A day after reports of the “violent face-off” in the western Himalayas emerged, Indian news outlets began naming some of the dead and a clearer picture started to build of what transpired on Monday night on the high, steep ridge lines above the fast-flowing Galwan River.
The killings were sparked when a patrol of Indian soldiers encountered Chinese troops in a steep section of the mountainous region they believed the People’s Liberation Army had retreated from, in line with a 6 June disengagement agreement, sources in Delhi said.
The two armies jostled and hand-to-hand fighting broke out – neither side armed in line with decades of tradition supposed to ward off the possibility of escalation between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
Then an Indian commanding officer was pushed, fell from the narrow ridge and fell to his death in the gorge below.