New Delhi, Sep 19 (UNI) Pakistani protests notwithstanding, India has gone ahead with its plan to open the disputed Siachen glacier for tourism and expeditions as it dispatched the first batch of 42 trekkers from here by a special Indian Air Force aircraft today.
The Defence Ministry had cleared the 22-day trek to Siachen, considered the world's highest battleground, even though the Pakistan Foreign Office had protested against the plan.
Officials here said the trekking group had reached Leh, the headquarters of the Ladakh district in northern Jammu and Kashmir, to begin preparations for the arduous trek.
According to Defence Ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar, there was no move to call off the trek ''as we consider it a routine mountaineering activity''.
''It should not be looked at in any other way... The expedition is taking place in an area which is ours,'' spokesman Kar observed.
India had previously allowed military expeditions to climb peaks straddling the 72-kilometre-long glacier situated in the Karokaram range but this will be the first group of civilians to trek the icy heights.
The trekkers will spend six days in Leh for acclimatisation and then move to the Siachen base camp before finally beginning a 12-kilometre trek to the 16,000-feet (4,877 metres) 'Kumar' camp.
The trekkers will be escorted by Army guides who are experts in traversing dangerous routes on the glacier.
Pakistan had on Monday last objected to India's decision and summoned a top Indian diplomat to the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad to register a formal protest.
Pakistan said Siachen could not be opened for civilians as it was still a restricted area and the conflict over it had yet to be resolved. The Indian action could have negative implications for the peace dialogue between the two countries, Pak Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tasnim Aslam had warned.
The dispute on Siachen is among the eight contentious issues which are being discussed between the South Asian nuclear-armed neighbours as part of a peace process initiated in early 2004.
India and Pakistan have lost several hundred of their soldiers on the icy heights to inhospitable weather since 1984 when Indian forces entered the area.
Pakistan and India agreed to a cease-fire in November 2003 but did not withdraw their forces from the Himalayan glacier.