India and Pakistan have been fighting a ``silent war'' for more than three years for the control of a remote glacier in the Himalayan mountains. Scores of soldiers have reportedly perished on both sides in the little-publicized confrontation on Siachen glacier that sits astride the traditional cease-fire line in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.
According to Indian government officials and Western diplomatic sources here, Indian troops last weekend repulsed a Pakistani attempt to regain control of four passes that provide the main access to the 19,000-foot glacier. The two neighbors, who had until then tried to play down the confrontation, traded angry charges this week over the latest fighting, the largest ever reported. Indian military officials claimed as many as 150 Pakistani soldiers were slain in the battles over three days. Indian fatalities were said to be comparatively fewer.
Pakistan accused India of pursuing ``aggressive designs'' in the region, saying that instead of trying to find a peaceful settlement, the Indians ``resorted to the use of force which resulted in casualties.''
The Indian Defense Ministry says the fighting began Sept. 23 when nearly 1,000 Pakistani soldiers stormed the four passes with heavy artillery fire and aircraft bombing in an attempt to dislodge the Indian troops, who control the main glacier.
A Western diplomat speculates the fighting may have been prompted by rival strategies to consolidate military positions before the onset of winter. ``But there is little doubt that the Pakistanis have suffered a significant setback,'' he said.
The fighting on the Siachen ice slopes is an extension of the two nations' lingering territorial dispute over Kashmir, which has embittered their relations since independence from Britain in 1947.
Muslim Pakistan, which was carved out of the British Indian empire, and predominantly Hindu India have fought wars in 1948, 1965, and 1971. The first war enabled Pakistan to wrest control of one-third of Kashmir, while the last led to the emergence of East Pakistan as independent Bangladesh.
Although both countries have virtually learned to live with a divided Kashmir, the dispute continues to evoke strong emotions in Pakistan because of Kashmir's predominantly Muslim population. Government leaders on both sides have used the issue to play to the gallery.
According to independent analysts here, the latest Pakistani offensive on the glacier may have been triggered by growing domestic political pressure on President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who has been peatedly criticized by major opposition politicians for Indian military gains in the area.
Fighting first erupted in 1984 when Pakistani troops reportedly set up camps in a no-man's-land - in the inhospitable upper reaches of the strategic glacier that overlooks India's sensitive military installations. India, alarmed by what it saw as a threat to its security, mounted a major offensive and seized control of the upper glacier, analysts say.
The Siachen Glacier has immense strategic importance for India because it commands the China-India-Pakistan ``triangle,'' formed by Peking's 1962 annexation of India's Aksai Chin region, says Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, director of New Delhi's Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a government think-tank.
``Pakistani control of the glacier would make India strategically vulnerable,'' he argues.
A recent government television documentary showed that the Indian military has paid a high price for controlling the main glacier. Since even helicopters cannot land in the upper glacier, food and equipment have to be air-dropped, the film revealed. Dozens of soldiers have died in avalanches and blizzards.
Indian and Pakistani defense secretaries have held two rounds of negotiations to settle the glacier dispute, but no solution appears in sight.