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Wednesday, December 20, 2000

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Gorkhas stand tall even here

By Kesava Menon

Ibl-e-Saqi (LEBANON), DEC. 18. There is something about the sight of the Tricolour and the Ashoka Chakra that brings on a frisson and pleasure even in a forgotten corner of a foreign land. The national flag does not merely float from a pole in this remote village in the south-eastern corner of Lebanon nor has it been raised by an obscure Indophile. It is emblazoned on signboards, roadside warnings and message boards in the Indian Army's friendly way of announcing its presence.

Number 4 Battalion of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is India's contribution to the multinational peacekeeping force. Since November, the Fifth Battalion of the Ninth Gorkha Rifles (5/9 GR) has been serving as ``IndBat'', the name UNIFIL has given it. This is the third infantry unit to serve with UNIFIL after 2/4 Gorkha Rifles, which was here in 1998-99, and 2 Madras, which left in November. These units served on a mission that is military in form but more diplomatic in content.

It is a delicate assignment. The Indian units, which were all based at Ibl-e-Saqi, are at the farthest end of UNIFIL's deployment. When 2/4 GR and 2 Madras were in UNIFIL, their area of operation (as of the other UNIFIL units) was right inside the zone that Israel had occupied in southern Lebanon.

Israel pulled out in May and the area has nominally reverted to Lebanon. But it has not yet ordered its security forces to guard its borders and neither do its police forces have a marked presence here. In effect, UNIFIL continues as a buffer between the two nations that have not declared an end to hostilities.

Since UNIFIL does not have the mandate to physically separate forces on the two sides or prevent them from fighting, its job has been one of monitoring and reporting violence. After Israel's withdrawal, this task boiled down to one of reporting border violations and of interdicting contraband, including weapons and drugs, on the Lebanese side of the border. At present, IndBat could be said to have the most sensitive task since there are two spots along its line of deployment where the border question has not been conclusively settled.

There is a different atmosphere in the area where 5/9 GR operates and this is not mere patriotic bias. Its patrols are more frequent and its checkpoints guarded with far more seriousness than areas under the charge of other units.

There are units from Western and former Soviet bloc armies in UNIFIL. But even the short period in which they have had to measure their professional competence against other armies has been sufficient to enhance 5/9 GR's pride in its own, and the Indian Army's, abilities.

Along with its responsibilities in UNIFIL, 5/9 GR also needs to maintain its abilities as an effective fighting force. A relatively young unit - it was raised in 1963 - it has a glorious history. Within just two years, it won its first battle honour in the Indo-Pakistan war by capturing in frontal assault the road and rail junction of Phillora in the Sialkot sector, thus opening the breach for an armoured thrust. More recently, it has won the Army chief's citation for effective counter-insurgency operations in the Sopore area of Jammu and Kashmir.

Col. Rakesh Virmani, Commanding Officer of the battalion, and his officers are about to start their annual training cycle mindful that the unit has asked for another assignment in Kashmir after their return in late 2001. They also have the time and opportunity to hone their skills in the art of ``winning hearts and minds''.

Building on the earlier work done by 2/4 GR and 2 Madras, 5/9 GR has extended the services of its medical and dental detachments to the locals. Its veterinary services, administered by an attached unit of the Remount and Veterinary Corps, is popular.

Currently, 5/9 GR is working on improving the water supply to this relatively arid area and exploring the viability of building an indoor stadium for the villagers.

Many Indians, especially in areas wracked by upheavals, both natural and human-made, look up to the Army for succour. Now, people in foreign countries too do the same.

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