New Delhi: Five soldiers, including a junior commissioned officer (JCO), were killed during a tank exercise on Friday night in eastern Ladakh after their Russian-origin T-72 was swept away by the raging waters of the Shyok River near Saser Brangsa, officials aware of the matter said on Saturday. 

Attempts to rescue the tank crew by a squad of combat engineers failed because of the strong currents, (Twitter Photo)

Attempts to rescue the tank crew by a squad of combat engineers failed because of the strong currents, the officials said. The soldiers belonged to the 52 Armoured Regiment deployed at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), India’s northernmost military base near the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, HT has learnt. 

The rescue squad, consisting of nine soldiers, attempted its mission in a BAUT (boat assault universal type) but returned after finding itself in a precarious situation in the swollen river and could not save the men, said one of the officials cited above, who asked not to be named. 

“Such crossings are carried out during drills after factoring in the river conditions. The turn of events was totally unexpected because of what seems to be a flash flood,” said a second official, who also requested anonymity. 

“On 28 June 2024 night, while deinducting from a military training activity, an army tank got stuck in the Shyok River, near Saser Brangsa, Eastern Ladakh due to sudden increase in the water level. Rescue teams rushed to the location, however, due to high current and water levels, the rescue mission didn’t succeed, and the tank crew lost their lives,” the Leh-based HQs 14 Corps wrote on X. 

“Indian Army regrets loss of five brave personnel while being operationally deployed in Eastern Ladakh. Rescue operations are underway.”

Officials said the army will release the names of the five soldiers after their families have been informed. 

“Deeply saddened at the loss of lives of five of our brave Indian Army soldiers in an unfortunate accident while getting the tank across a river in Ladakh. We will never forget exemplary service of our gallant soldiers to the nation. My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. The nation stands firm with them during this hour of grief,” Union defence minister Rajnath Singh wrote on X. 

The incident comes at a time when the military standoff between India and China in eastern Ladakh is now in its fifth year, with no indication of an immediate resolution to the outstanding problems along the contested LAC even as India is hoping that ongoing negotiations with the neighbour will help restore the status quo ante of April 2020. 

Last August, nine soldiers were killed when an army truck, part of a three-vehicle convoy, veered off the road and plunged into a deep gorge near Kiari in Leh. 

The tank incident took place near Saser Brangsa through which the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is building a new road to provide much-needed alternative connectivity to the remote DBO outpost. Work on the Sasoma-Saser La-Saser Brangsa-Gapshan-DBO road gathered momentum four years ago in the backdrop of escalating military tensions between India and China. 

The construction of the 130-km road from Sasoma in the Nubra Valley to DBO near the Karakoram Pass is in its final phase. The existing 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road runs close to LAC. Sasoma and Darbuk can be reached from Leh via two different road axes. 

The Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have held 21 rounds of corps commander-level talks to cool tensions along LAC, but the two sides still have tens of thousands of troops each and advanced weaponry deployed in the Ladakh theatre. Diplomatic talks are also underway to find a solution. 

The talks have thus far resulted in four rounds of disengagement from Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, Gogra (PP-17A) and Hot Springs (PP-15), but problems at Depsang and Demchok are still on the negotiating table.