China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) helicopters flew deep into Indian territory and was seen hovering over Barahoti region of Uttarakhand's Chamoli district on Saturday, only to brazenly defend it saying India and China have a boundary dispute and the Chinese military carry out regular patrolling in the relevant areas.
Two PLA helicopters hovered over Chamoli district, nearly 100 km inside the Indian territory, on Saturday, in the fourth such incursion into the Indian airspace since March 2017.
The choppers returned to the Chinese side after about five minutes, probably after carrying out aerial photography of Indian ground troops in what could be a reconnaissance mission, official sources in New Delhi said.
"In principle China and India have territorial disputes in the eastern section of the China-India border'', Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the media.
He, however, said details on the reports that PLA helicopters violated Indian airspace can be obtained from the ministry of defence.
"The Chinese military carry out regular patrolling in the relevant areas. We hope that the two sides will make joint efforts to maintain tranquillity and peace in the border areas," Hua said.
The choppers were identified as the Zhiba series of attack helicopters.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is probing the incident.
Chinese helicopters had earlier entered 4.5 km into Indian territory, an area that China claims as its own and recognises as Wu-Je.
Barahoti is one of three border posts in the sector, comprising Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where India-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) jawans are not allowed to carry weapons and are in civilian clothes under a unilateral decision taken by the government in June 2000.
In 1958, India and China listed Barahoti, an 80 square kilometres sloping pasture, as a disputed area where neither side would send their troops. In the 1962 India-China war, the PLA did not enter the 545 km middle sector, focusing on the Western (Ladakh) and Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors.
However, after the 1962 war, ITBP jawans patrolled the area with weapons in a non-combative manner, under which the barrel of the gun is positioned downward.
During prolonged negotiations on resolving border disputes, the Indian side had unilaterally decided in June 2000 that ITBP troops would not be carrying arms to three posts - Barahoti, Kauril and Shipki in Himachal Pradesh.
China considers the 3,488 km line of control on the border with India as disputed and claims Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern sector as Southern Tibet, while India asserts that China has illegally occupied Aksai Chin during the 1962 war.