By Jaishree Balasubramanian
Pakistan escorted an Indian fighter pilot in its custody to a border crossing point where he stepped free onto home soil Friday night, easing bilateral tensions over his fate after Pakistani jets shot down his MiG-21 warplane over Kashmir.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, dressed neatly in a white shirt and civilian jacket, crossed the frontier gates into Attari, India at 9:21 p.m. (local time) as Pakistan turned the air force officer over to Indian authorities in a nationally televised event.
The Pakistani government said it released him as a “peace gesture,” two days after its forces captured him amid a military standoff between the neighboring rivals.
“Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan. The nation is proud of your exemplary courage,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted after the pilot’s release.
However, tensions remained high in the disputed Kashmir region on Friday, where the Indian and Pakistani military continued to exchange artillery fire across the de facto border there. At least seven people were killed in fighting and other violence on the Indian side, officials said.
Tensions rose sharply earlier this week after India launched an airstrike over Pakistani territory that targeted a suspected militant training camp, in retaliation for a suicide bombing by Pakistan-based militants that killed 40 Indian troops in Indian Kashmir on Feb. 14.
The wing commander’s MiG was shot down during an aerial dogfight in the skies above Kashmir, but he ejected and parachuted into Pakistani territory.
Varthaman’s release was delayed because the Pakistani authorities had asked him to record a video statement before he was allowed to cross over, the Press Trust of India news agency reported, quoting unnamed sources in Lahore. In the video, he wore his light green flight suit.
“It was not clear whether he was made to record the video under duress. The video also had several jump cuts indicating that it had been edited heavily,” the agency said.
Hundreds of people had gathered at the Wagah-Attari border point in Indian Punjab since Friday morning, waiting for the handover. Some held the Indian flag while others danced and beat drums to welcome the pilot home. After hanging around for hours, many left when it turned dark and rain began to fall.
“Pakistan’s style is to create a mini crisis at the last moment. Am not surprised that some kind of theatrics being played. This kind of extended delay can be counterproductive,” Leela Ponnapa, a former deputy national security advisor told BenarNews after the delay in the wing commander’s repatriation.
After the airman’s release, Varthaman was to be taken for a medical checkup “because the officer had to eject from his aircraft and his body could be under great stress,” Indian Air Vice Marshall R.G.K. Kapoor told reporters.
‘A positive first step’
The air force pilot’s return came after several nations, including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UAE and China urged the two nuclear-armed South Asian nations to exercise restraint.
New Delhi maintained that it bombed the militant training camp, saying that Pakistan planned to strike at Indian military installations. Pakistan rejected the allegation as well as accusations from India that it was supporting militant groups including Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), which the Indians blamed for the car-bombing in Kashmir on Feb. 14.
“The return of the Indian pilot back to India is a positive first step,” Anil Wadhwa, a former diplomat and scholar at the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think-tank, told BenarNews.
“Pakistan needs to demonstrate that it is taking meaningful, quick and decisive steps towards de-escalation by shutting down terror training camps on its soil and refraining from sponsoring cross-border terrorism and jihadism, which was the cause of the Pulwama blast and the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan,” he said, referring to the Feb. 14 attack.
Pakistani Foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, meanwhile, said that JeM chief Masood Azhar was in Pakistan.
“He is unwell to the extent that he can’t leave his house, because he is really unwell,” Qureshi told CNN in an interview on Friday. The minister said Islamabad would take action against Azhar if evidence was provided that could “stand in a court of law.”
India also blamed Azhar’s group for an attack on an air base in Indian Punjab in January 2016 that left at least seven soldiers dead.
Qureshi added that the release of the Indian pilot was a “peace gesture” and must be seen as Pakistan’s willingness to “deescalate.”
A day earlier, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on told parliament that “we are releasing the Indian pilot as a goodwill gesture.”
Also on Friday, more violence took place in Indian Kashmir. Two suspected insurgents, two soldiers and two police officers were killed in a gunfight in northern Kupwara district, authorities said.
And in the border districts of Poonch and Rajouri, residents said they could not sleep overnight because of steady shelling along the Line of Control (LoC), a de facto boundary that demarcates the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled regions of Kashmir. A civilian was killed Friday in shelling in Uri town, police said.
Mohammad Jamal Gojri, a Poonch resident, told BenarNews that he and his family “did not sleep a wink due to the deafening sounds of mortar shells and firing from across the border.”
The Himalayan territory of Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim in its entirety, has grappled with a separatist insurgency that has killed at least 70,000 people since the late 1980s. The neighbors have gone to war over Kashmir twice in their 72-year history – in 1965 and 1998.
Mohammad Amin Pirzada contributed to this report from Srinagar, India.