Chinese authorities returned to India five residents of Arunachal Pradesh who strayed across the border during an expedition to hunt and collect medicinal herbs 10 days ago, army officials said on Saturday.
The five men from the Tagin tribe, who worked as porters for the army, were handed over at Kibithu after completing all formalities, officials said.
“The individuals will now be quarantined for 14 days as per Covid-19 protocol and thereafter be handed over to their family members,” Lt Col Harsh Wardhan Pande, a defence spokesperson based in Assam’s Tezpur ,said in a release.
Arunachal chief minister Pema Khandu thanked the army and the Centre. “Absolutely glad to know that five of our Arunachali youths have been safely handed over to Indian Army by Chinese PLA. I am wholeheartedly thankful to the Govt of India and the Indian Army for their persistent effort in securing their return,” he posted on Twitter.
The development came in the backdrop of simmering tensions between India and China with forces of the two countries locked in a face-off in eastern Ladakh over a border dispute.
According to the army, this was the third such instance of people from Arunachal Pradesh living near the India-China border “straying inadvertently to the other side of line of actual control (LAC)” during “adventurous forays” this year.
“Indian Army has always been proactive in tracing the lost locals and helping them return home. Three such incidents took place in the current year in Upper Subansiri and West Siang district including the latest one,” the army’s release said.
“All such individuals were brought back home safely after consistent efforts and coordination by Indian Army in the past,” it added.
In the latest incident, the five men — Tanu Bakar, Prasad Ringling, Ngaru Diri, Dongtu Ebiya and Toch Singkam — went missing on September 2, reportedly from Sera-7 in Upper Subansiri district on the Indian side of the McMahon line bifurcating Arunachal and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China.
The brother of one of the missing men posted on social media that they had been “abducted” by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Similar accusations were made by Tapir Gao, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parliamentarian from Arunachal East, and Ninong Ering, a Congress legislator from Pasighat, in their tweets.
Responding to a hotline message sent by the Indian Army, PLA replied on Tuesday that the men were found on the Chinese side and their condition was fine.
On Monday, China’s state-controlled Global Times tweeted Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian as saying that the country “never recognized so called ‘Arunachal Pradesh’, which is China’s south Tibet region…”
Family members of the five men thanked the army and officials of the Centre and the state government. “The release was arranged in a matter of a few days. I can’t thank the army, government officials and the PLA enough for their cooperation and goodwill gesture,” Reri Delak Bakar, the brother of Tanu Bakar, told news agency PTI.