China has returned 10 Indian soldiers captured during a deadly border clash earlier this week, a Indian government source said on Friday, as the nuclear-armed neighbours sought to de-escalate tensions on their disputed border in the western Himalayas.
In a briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian denied any Indian troops had been in its custody.
“As far as I know, China hasn’t seized any Indian personnel,” Zhao said.
The Indian army did not comment on the release, which according to the source took place on Thursday evening, instead referring to a government statement that said all of its soldiers were accounted for.
Twenty Indian soldiers, including an officer were killed in hand-to-hand combat on Monday night in the Galwan Valley, according to the Indian government, making it the deadliest clash on the India-China border in more than five decades.
India has said the Chinese side also suffered casualties, but China has not disclosed any.
A day after the funerals of some of the soldiers in their hometowns the public mood was hardening in India with growing calls for revenge and a boycott of Chinese-made goods.
Since the clash, military officials have held talks as their governments seek to deescalate the confrontation, but there is no sign of a breakthrough.
“The situation remains as it was, there is no disengagement, but there is also no further build up of forces,” said a second Indian government source, who is aware of the ground situation.
The official said at least 76 Indian troops were wounded during the clash, and had been hospitalised.
“No one is critical as of now,” he said.
With his nation in shock over the loss its soldiers lives, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces one of the most difficult foreign policy challenges since he came to power in 2014.
On Friday evening, Modi will hold an all-party meeting in New Delhi to discuss the crisis on the border with China.
The United States offered condolences to India on Friday.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the people of India for the lives lost as a result of the recent confrontation with China,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a message posted on Twitter.
“We will remember the soldiers’ families, loved ones, and communities as they grieve.”
Having actively sought greater economic engagement with China, Modi is compelled to review the state of those ties, just at a time when Sino-US relations have also deteriorated.
As a non-aligned nation, India has always sought to balance the influence of super-powers.
But in the past two decades, New Delhi has built closer political and defence ties with Washington, and the United States has become one of India’s top arms suppliers.
Now some senior former Indian diplomats are calling for an even tighter relationship with the United States and its allies to help face the economic and military might of China.
“This is an opportunity for India to align its interests much more strongly and unequivocally with the U.S. as a principal strategic partner and infuse more energy into relations with Japan, Australia, and ASEAN,” former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao wrote in The Hindu newspaper.
India has accused the Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of acting in a premeditated manner, attacking Indian soldiers with iron rods and batons studded with nails.
Satellite images suggest that in the days leading up to the clash, China brought in heavy machinery, cut a trail into the mountainside and may have even dammed a river.