ITANAGAR: Almost a week since five people from Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district went missing from near the international boundary with China, they were reported to have been found by the Chinese army.

The five- Tanu Bakar, Ngaru Diri, Dongtu Ebiya, Prasat Ringling, and Toch Singkam -were last seen on September 3.

"As a result of persistent efforts of Indian Army five missing hunters from Indian side of LAC in Upper Subansiri, who had inadvertently crossed over to other side on 02 Sept 2020, were traced. Chinese Army on 08 Sept responded on Hotline and confirmed that the missing Indians have been found on their side. Formalities for their early transfer is being coordinated with the Chinese Army," Lt Col Harsh Wardhan Pande, PRO Defence, Tezpur, said.

They reportedly went missing from the Sera-7 area in the district’s Nacho administrative circle.

Much like many places in the state, Nacho is not an easily accessible place.

The distance from Itanagar to the district headquarters, Daporijo, is around 350 km (depending on the route taken) but can take a good 12 hours to complete. From Daporijo, the distance to Nacho is around 120 km but the road conditions mean that it takes around six hours to reach.

News of their alleged ‘kidnapping’ by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) came to the fore after family members wrote about it on Facebook on Friday. Reportedly, they were informed about the abduction by two others who were with them but were not captured by the PLA personnel.

While there has been no official statement issued by the Army, sources have said that it is in touch with the PLA officials of that sector.

Union Minister for Sports, Kiren Rijiju, who is also a Lok Sabha MP from the state, had tweeted on Monday that the Army had contacted the Chinese PLA over hotline and that it was awaiting a response from them.

Defence Spokesperson Lt Col Harsh Wardhan Pande also informed that there has not been any response from the Chinese until Tuesday afternoon.

The Chinese authorities, meanwhile, have denied any culpability.

On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian denied having any knowledge about the incident, stating that it does not even recognise “the so-called ‘Arunachal Pradesh’.

“I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned,” Lijian was quoted as telling reporters.

Lijian is also reported to have said that China cannot “abduct” its own citizens, i.e. residents of Arunachal Pradesh which it claims is part of its territory.

The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union said that the people of Arunachal Pradesh are “proud Indians and staunch nationalists and don’t need any recognition or validation from a foreign entity”.

“Instead of issuing misleading statements, the Chinese government should direct its armed forces to immediately release the five civilians who were abducted by PLA soldiers recently,” it said.

A statement from the AAPSU was also critical of the Indian government and its alleged ‘weak stance’ on the issue.

“Denials by our own government on earlier occasions followed by weak response to such recurring advances have greatly emboldened the Chinese forces,” it said.

The AAPSU also said that the government must ensure the safety and security of people living in border areas and that there must be a “strong deterrent against such recurring mischief along the LAC”.

While the Chinese denied any knowledge of the incident, search operations were continuing.

Arunachal Pradesh’s Director General of Police, RP Upadhyaya told the media that the state police had conducted searches in and around Nacho area to locate the five missing youths.

Upadhaya said that the family has not lodged an official complaint with the police yet because they might be conducting their own searches. He did, however, say that efforts are on to locate them.

It was only on Tuesday evening that Rijiju took to Twitter to say that the five had been ‘found’.

“China's PLA has responded to the hotline message sent by Indian Army. They have confirmed that the missing youths from Arunachal Pradesh have been found by their side. Further modalities to handover the persons to our authority is being worked out,” Rijiju tweeted.

Initial reports had said that the missing youth may have been working as porters for government agencies, including the Army, there has been no official confirmation about it.

The defence spokesperson said that they were students and not working as porters “as per the statement of one of the boys’ brother”.

While searches were on and the Army was awaiting contact from the Chinese, on Monday, the president of the All Upper Subansiri District Students’ Union, Yade Natam, issued a statement denying any involvement of the missing boys with the Army.

A vague message from her said: “…regarding the matter pertaining to the abduction of five boys by (the) People’s Liberation Army of China from Thunder mountain or Sera-7 that the statement made in the public domain by the students union, NGOs, media houses, and the general public is found to be null and void as ground reality states something different. All Upper Subansiri District Students' Union engaged its spokesperson Dadu Pading who is the relative of (one of the) victim family itself, to find out the ground reality and visited the spot and victim family and ascertained that those abducted boys were hunters and went to the said place for hunting purpose for their livelihood”.

The statement went on to say that the union is making a request to ‘stop spreading such fake news which may have a negative impact on those victims and their families’.

“Spreading such message without authenticity can risk someone's life,” her statement added.

She did not respond to queries when contacted and it remains unclear if the statement was issued under the direction of any government authorities.