Talks over in 15 minutes

New Delhi, Jan. 14: A brigade-level flag meeting between the Indian and Pakistan armies was over in 15 minutes at the Chakan-da-Bagh crossing on the Line of Control on Monday, with each side talking past the other and India not even able to demand the head of its decapitated soldier.

But the Indian brigadier, M.V. Sachendra Kumar, conveyed to his counterpart F. Faisal that the tensions could escalate and that the Indian Army "reserves the right to retaliate".

The army chief said there should be pressure on Pakistan to return the head of the slain soldier, Lance Naik Hem Raj.

"I think we should pressurise them nationally and internationally... so that they are made accountable and they are made to return the head of our soldier which they have taken away," he said in his annual Army Day news conference here.

"It will be taken up at the government level and you will have to appreciate that this has to be done through diplomatic channels."

An army source said: "Our officer expressed concern over repeated ceasefire violations and lodged a strong protest and said the Pakistan army should teach its troops the ethics of professional soldiering and that they should not resort to such barbarism (as beheading and mutilating the fallen). The Pakistani delegation denied that its troops had crossed the LoC or had violated the ceasefire."

Brigadier Kumar had gone to the flag meeting to register protest and ask for the head of Hem Raj and also to warn of escalation. The soldier, who was killed on January 8, was cremated the next day but his family began a hunger strike demanding his head be recovered. They called the fast off today.

The army chief, General Bikram Singh, said he would visit the western Uttar Pradesh village if Hem Raj's family demanded his presence but recalled that 91 soldiers had been killed on duty since the last Army Day.

In a conversation, Gen. Singh described the ethics of professional soldiery: "So long as the adversary is fighting, he is my enemy but once he is killed, I will salute the body."

A statement from the army's Udhampur-headquartered Northern Command said this about the flag meeting: "Our representative expressed our grave concern over the barbaric act by Pakistani troops in the recent ambush of our patrol in the Mendhar Sector.

"Indian Army raised a strong protest against the heinous mutilation of our deceased soldier's bodies, pointing out that it was against the tenets of the Geneva Convention as also in contravention to all established norms of soldierly behaviour.

"It was conveyed to the Pakistan delegation that such a dastardly and cowardly act is totally unacceptable and is a premeditated attempt to undermine the Cease Fire Agreement of 2003, which can lead to further escalation."

One officer said that army headquarters had not been keen on calling a flag meeting immediately but did so at the insistence of the cabinet committee on security. The army expected to achieve little from talks at a time tensions were peaking.

Asked what Pakistan's motivation could be in carrying out the January 8 raid, Gen. Singh replied: "We are analysing it. Let us see how they operate on the LoC in future. Do they want to reactivate the LoC? Is the Pakistan Army on the back foot?"

But a belligerent Pakistan blamed India for the escalating tensions and denied any role in the killing and mutilation of Hem Raj, or the killing of Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh, on Tuesday.

An Indian defence spokesperson said that at the flag meeting, the Pakistani team leader "reiterated the false and fabricated allegations that our troops crossed the Line of Control and killed one Pakistani soldier and injured another".

Officials said the issue of cross-LoC trade and travel, which remains suspended on the Poonch-Rawalakote road, didn't come up for discussion.

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