NEW DELHI • Indian soldiers who died in close combat with Chinese troops last month were unarmed and surrounded by a larger force on a steep ridge, Indian government sources, two soldiers deployed in the area and families of the fallen men said.
One of the Indian soldiers had his throat slit with metal nails in the darkness, his father told Reuters, saying he had been told by a fellow soldier who was there.
Others fell to their deaths in the freezing waters of the Galwan River in the western Himalayas, relatives have learnt from witnesses.
Twenty Indian soldiers died in the June 15 clash on the de facto border separating the two armies.
The soldiers all belonged to the 16th Bihar Regiment deployed in the Galwan region. No shots were fired, but it was the biggest loss of life in combat between the nuclear-armed neighbours since 1967, when the simmering border dispute flared into deadly battles.
Beijing has dismissed an Indian government minister's claim that China had lost 40 People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers deployed to Galwan.
Its envoy to Delhi suggested in remarks to local media and posted on the embassy website that there had been losses on both sides.
Indian government officials told Reuters that the conflict began when the commanding officer of the Bihar Regiment led a small party to Patrol Point 14 to verify whether the Chinese had made good on their promise to withdraw from the disputed site and dismantle structures they had built there. A relative of one of the soldiers who accompanied Colonel Santosh Babu, the commanding officer, to the site of two tents erected by the Chinese troops told Reuters that members of the Indian patrol were unarmed.
They were confronted by a small group of Chinese soldiers and an argument ensued over the tents and a small observation tower, the relative said, on the basis of conversations with two other soldiers who were present.
Reuters was unable to establish all the details of what happened, but government officials in New Delhi briefed on the incident said that, at some point, Indian troops took down the observation post and the tents because they were on India's side of the Line of Actual Control.
Soon after, the Indian side came under attack from a large Chinese force that pelted them with stones and attacked them with sharp-edged weapons, according to the families of three dead Indian soldiers, based on conversations they had with survivors.
Some soldiers retreated to safety on the ridgeline in the darkness, but when they could not find the commanding officer, they re-emerged and came under fresh attack, four family members said.
Col Babu was among those killed in the fighting, the Indian government said.
One of the soldiers deployed to the area said the Indian patrol was outnumbered by the PLA. "The Chinese side overwhelmed our people by sheer numbers," said the soldier, who overheard radio messages seeking reinforcements being sent to regional headquarters in Ladakh.
Three of the Indian families said they had been told by soldiers who were commissioned to take the bodies back to them that some combatants pushed each other into the fast-flowing Galwan River.
The government official in Delhi said bodies of some soldiers were fished out of the river the next morning.
Reuters spoke to relatives of 13 of the men who were killed and, in five cases, they produced death certificates listing horrific injuries suffered during the six-hour night-time clash at 4,267m in remote, barren mountains.
Three of the dead men had their "arteries ruptured in the neck" and two sustained head injuries caused by "sharp or pointed objects", the death certificates said.
There were visible marks on the neck and forehead, all five documents said. "It was a free-for-all, they fought with whatever they could lay their hands on - rods, sticks and even with their bare hands," said a government official in Delhi briefed on the clash.
In response to a Reuters query, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry repeated previous statements blaming the Indian side for crossing the de facto border and provoking the Chinese.
"When Chinese officers and soldiers went there to negotiate, they were suddenly and violently attacked by the Indian troops," the spokesman said. "The rights and wrongs of the incident are very clear. The responsibility absolutely does not lie with the Chinese."