Rupam Jain, Devjyot Goshal
MUMBAI/ NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The death of a Tibetan member of an Indian special forces unit in a mine blast near the site of a border flare-up with Chinese troops has offered a rare glimpse into a little-known group of elite, high-altitude warriors.
Tenzin Nyima, 53, was killed and another commando critically wounded in the blast near the shores of the Pangong Tso lake in the western Himalayas, three Indian government officials and two members of his family told Reuters.
Indian and Chinese forces came close to direct confrontation in the area over the weekend over competing territorial claims, their governments have said.
Nyima was part of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), his family and three Indian government officials said.
The force recruits mostly from Tibetan refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom have made India their home since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet following a failed uprising in 1959. Some are Indian citizens.
Few details are publicly known about the covert force set up soon after a war between India and China in 1962. Two officials estimated its strength at more than 3,500 men.
Amitabh Mathur, a former Indian government adviser on Tibetan affairs, said the SFF were “crack troops, especially in the context of mountain climbing and high-altitude warfare.
“If at all they (SFF) were deployed, I am not surprised. It makes sense to deploy them at high altitudes. They are terrific mountain climbers and commandos.”
India’s defense and home ministries did not respond to a request for comment on the SFF.
China has long considered the presence of a large number of Tibetans in India as a threat to its territorial integrity. They are led by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing denounces as a dangerous separatist.
He says he only wants genuine autonomy for his remote Himalayan homeland.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news briefing on Wednesday she did not know whether Tibetans were fighting for India, but urged caution.
“We are firmly opposed to any country, including India, supporting the secession activities of Tibetan pro-independence forces or providing them with any assistance or physical space,” she said.