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India to Allow Tourists on Disputed Glacier

19 September 2007

India is allowing a group of tourists to visit the Siachen glacier in the disputed region of Kashmir for the first time, despite objections by Pakistan. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, thousands of soldiers from both countries have occupied the Siachen glacier for more than two decades.

The Indian defense ministry says a group of tourists is being flown to Leh, and will walk to the Siachen glacier after they adjust to the high altitude.

This is the first time civilians are being allowed to go to the glacier, which lies on the dividing line between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. Officials say it is part of India's plans to open the area to tourism.

India and Pakistan have been locked in a bitter dispute over Siachen since 1984 when Indian troops occupied the 6,300-meter-high glacier. Since then, thousands of soldiers from both sides have confronted each other across the icy peaks, known as the world's highest battlefield.

Pakistan has objected to the trip, saying tourism should not be allowed in the area since it remains a disputed zone. Pakistan's foreign ministry said earlier this week that such initiatives would harm a dialogue process between the two countries.

But, Indian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel S.K. Sakhuja says the trip is going ahead as planned. The civilian mountaineers will be accompanied by soldiers familiar with the terrain.

"The factual position is that we consider this as a adventure activity, a routine adventure activity, and we have this going from today," he said.

Analysts say the plan to open Siachen to tourists is part of efforts by India to authenticate its claim to the strategic glacier in the Kashmir region.

"The message really is that this is not disputed territory, that Siachen is part of Indian territory, or territory under Indian control in Jammu and Kashmir, and this sort of activity merely, in a sense, symbolizes that fact," said Bharat Karnad, a defense analyst with New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. "Pakistan claims it is disputed territory and I think they are protesting primarily because they think that trekkers and such others would, in effect, undercut their claims to the Siachen area."

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that Siachen should be turned into a "mountain of peace" and both countries have held talks on withdrawing troops from the glacier - but there has been little progress, so far. Harsh weather has claimed the lives of hundreds of troops in the region.

India and Pakistan began a slow-moving peace process three years ago. The peace talks have lowered tensions and ended the regular shelling and firing that took place on their disputed border for decades. But, both sides have failed to make any headway in settling their conflicting claims to the Kashmir region.

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