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Pakistan returns Indian pilot in ‘peace gesture’

Agence France-Presse
The Indian pilot shot down by a Pakistani aircraft is returned as a 'peace gesture'

ABHINANDAN VARTHAMAN. The Indian pilot is returned to his home country as a 'peace gesture' by Pakistan. This handout photograph released by Pakistan's Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on February 27, 2019, shows the captured Indian pilot in the custody of Pakistani forces in an undisclosed location. AFP PHOTO / INTER SERVICES PUBLIC RELATIONS

WAGAH, India – A pilot shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft returned to India on Friday, March 1, after being freed in what Islamabad called a “peace gesture” following the biggest standoff between the two countries in years. (READ: Pakistan says will free Indian pilot as ‘peace gesture’)

But fresh violence raged in Kashmir, with 7 people killed in the Indian-administered part of the tinder-box territory, suggesting that the crisis may not be over yet.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, shot down on Wednesday over Kashmir – divided between the nuclear-armed rivals since 1947 – crossed into India at the famed Wagah crossing point, sporting a black eye from his ordeal.

Thousands of Indians, waving flags, singing and dancing with patriotic fervor, had gathered at the crossing point on Friday afternoon but the crowd dwindled after his release was delayed inexplicably by hours. (READ: Thousands gather at border to welcome back Indian pilot)

In New Delhi the announcement of the experienced pilot’s release was seen as a diplomatic victory, but India warned that its military remained on “heightened” alert.

On Thursday and Friday both countries continued to fire barrages across the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto  border dividing Kashmir, leaving at least one person dead.

Gun battles on the Indian side left two militants and 4 members of the Indian security services dead, while a civilian was killed in later protests, police told Agence France-Presse.

“Influence of terrorists and terrorism has been curtailed and it is going to be curtailed even more. This is a New India,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing a tough election due by May, said Friday.

“This is an India that will return the damage done by terrorists with interest,” he said.

India’s junior foreign minister and former army chief, Vijay Kumar Singh, tweeted that the “welcome” release of the pilot was “the first of many steps that #Pakistan must take to reinforce their commitment to peace”.

Suicide bombing

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule. Both claim it in full and have fought two wars over the Himalayan territory.

India has half a million troops in the part it administers, with militants – backed by Islamabad, according to New Delhi – fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died since a revolt that broke out in 1989. Last year was the deadliest in a decade with almost 600 killed, monitors say.

Matters escalated alarmingly after a massive suicide bombing killed 40 Indian troops on February 14, with the attack claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group. 

Twelve days later Indian warplanes launched a strike inside undisputed Pakistani territory, claiming to have hit a militant camp. 

An infuriated Islamabad denied casualties or damage, but a day later launched its own incursion across the LoC.

That sparked the dogfight which ended in both countries claiming they had shot down each other’s warplanes, and Abhinandan’s capture. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan unexpectedly announced Thursday that he would be released in the first sign of a potential thaw.

Khan alluded to the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war and called for talks – even as he warned India should not take the announcement as a sign of weakness.

Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi meanwhile said he was boycotting a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Abu Dhabi, as India had been invited.

The tensions prompted Pakistan to close down its airspace, disrupting major routes between Europe and South Asia and grounding thousands of travelers worldwide. (

Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said Friday that flights could land and depart from its main airports from 1300 GMT, and that others would be opened “gradually”.

Standing ovation

The parents of handlebar-moustached Abhinandan were given a standing ovation by fellow passengers as they boarded a flight to Amritsar near Wagah to welcome their son.

He has become a national hero after purported footage that went viral showed him being beaten by locals after being shot down before Pakistani soldiers intervened, with social media abuzz with #GivebackAbhinandan and #Abhinandanmyhero hashtags.

His subsequent polite refusal to proffer more details than necessary – “I am sorry major, I am not supposed to tell you this” won him particular sympathy in India.

His father, a retired air force officer, told the Times of India newspaper, “Just look at the way he talked so bravely… a true soldier… we are proud of him.” –