GYARI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan’s army chief on Wednesday made a rare call for the demilitarisation of the world’s highest battlefield after touring the site of an avalanche that buried 129 Pakistani soldiers near the border with rival India.
General Ashfaq Kayani was speaking 11 days after a Pakistani army battalion headquarters near the Siachen Glacier in the disputed Kashmir region was engulfed by up to 80 feet (25 metres) of snow. Eleven civilians were also trapped.
The tragedy has revived criticism of the 28-year conflict over the glacier, which critics say is futile.
Kayani, arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan, said the standoff has been costly in many ways, from defence spending to the environmental impact of deployments in the area.
“I think this is one good enough reason that this area should not be militarised,” he told reporters in the northern town of Skardu after viewing the avalanche site with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari from a helicopter.
Generals have ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 64-year history, through coups or from behind the scenes.
They set security and foreign policy, even when civilian governments are in power, as is the case now. Military spending consumes just over 17 percent of the state budget.
Rescue efforts were still under way near Siachen, with workers pushing through snow, mud and boulders using heavy machinery, life-detection equipment or even their gloved hands.
Brigadier Saqib Malik, the Siachen brigade commander, said a 200-feet (61 metres) deep mix of snow, ice, boulders and small rocks have covered the headquarters.
Highlighting the constant dangers of operating in the forbidding expanse, he instructed reporters to drop their equipment and run to a safe spot if avalanche warning whistles are heard.
The army has listed the names of the missing soldiers and civilians on its public relations website. There have been no death announcements and the military says it will not abandon the search and rescue effort.
“We will continue to make all efforts. Whether it takes 10 days or 10 months or if it takes three years, we are not going to give up on this,” said Kayani.“If we have to dig out this mountain, we’ll dig it out.”
Siachen is in Kashmir. The no-man‘s-land is 20,000 feet (6,000 metres) above sea level.
Military experts say the inhospitable climate and avalanche-prone terrain have claimed more lives than gunfire.
Muslim-majority Kashmir is at the heart of hostility between India and Pakistan and was the cause of two of their three full-scale wars.
Indian and Pakistani troops in Siachen have fought at altitudes of over 20,000 feet in temperatures of minus 60 degrees Celsius.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 Indian and Pakistani troops are stationed in the mountains above the glacier.
Although Kayani stressed that it was the duty of Pakistani soldiers to defend their country no matter how harsh the conditions, he also said a political solution was needed to end disputes like Siachen.
“It is for the leadership of both countries to find a solution,” he said.
“We hope and we wish that the issue is resolved, so that both countries do not have to pay this cost, pay this price.”
A tentative peace process is under way and ties between Islamabad and New Delhi are at their warmest in years, with recent high-level meetings.
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Angus MacSwan