India’s army says 20 of its soldiers have been killed in clashes with Chinese troops at a disputed border site in the western Himalayas, in a major escalation of a weeks-long standoff between the two Asian giants.

China’s foreign ministry confirmed there had been a “violent physical confrontation” in the border area, but made no mention of casualties. India’s foreign ministry said there had been casualties on both sides.

An Indian government source said the troops had fought with iron rods and stones, but that no shots had been fired.

The deaths were the first since the last major border clash in 1967 between the nuclear-armed Asian giants and world’s two most populous countries which have not been able to settle the dispute along their vast frontier.

Since early May, hundreds of soldiers have fronted up against each other at three locations, each side accusing the other of trespassing.

On Monday night, a small group of soldiers came to blows in the Galwan Valley, Indian officials said.

“During the de-escalation process under way in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place [last] night with casualties on both sides,” the Indian army said in a statement.

The officer who died was a colonel, the government source said. The two sides had been discussing ways to de-escalate but at some point the People’s Liberation Army turned on a group of Indian soldiers, the source said.

“They attacked with iron rods, the commanding officer was grievously injured and fell, and when that happened, more soldiers swarmed to the area and attacked with stones,” said the source, who had been briefed on the matter.

The Chinese side brought in reinforcements and the brawl went on for a couple of hours.

“Both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided had the agreement at the higher level been scrupulously followed by the Chinese side,” Indian foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said in a statement.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said there was a serious violation of a consensus reached by the two countries.

“China is raising strong opposition and stern representations to the Indian side on this,” he said.

Border guards have had skirmishes and fist fights when patrols have confronted each other, but there has been no loss of life at the border since in over 53 years

Military experts say that one reason for the face-off is that India has been building roads and airfields to improve connectivity and narrow the gap with China’s far superior infrastructure.

At Galwan, India completed a road leading to an airfield last October. The Chinese side have asked India to stop all construction.

India says it is operating on its side of the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border.

Reuters

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