March 02, 2019 08:19:04
Pakistan has released an Indian combat pilot who was captured after his plane was shot down by their military amid a tense stand-off between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
- Pilot was released and taken for medical tests
- Pakistan said the decision to release the pilot was a “gesture of peace”
- Hundreds of Indians gathered at the boarder to greet the pilot back home
The pilot was transported in a convoy that set out from the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the border crossing at Wagah, escorted by military vehicles with soldiers, their weapons drawn.
Pakistani TV footage showed Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman walking across the border near the town of Wagah just before 9:00pm (local time).
On the Indian side of the border, turbaned police lined the road as a group of cheering residents waved their national flag and held up a huge garland of flowers to welcome the pilot back.
An Indian defence official said the pilot was then taken for medical checks.
“This check-up is mandated particularly because the officer has had to eject from an aeroplane,” Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor told reporters near a border crossing in India’s northern state of Punjab.
“IAF (Indian Air Force) is happy to have Abhinandan back, thank you.”
Islamabad said the pilot’s release was a “gesture of peace”.
The pilot became the human face of the most recent conflict between India and Pakistan when his MiG-21 jet was shot down by a Pakistani fighter during an aerial clash over the disputed Kashmir region on Wednesday.
The plane crashed on the Pakistani side of the de facto border that separates the two sides of Kashmir, a Himalayan region that has been a source of hostility between the two countries ever since independence from Britain in 1947.
After attempting to evade capture, he has been portrayed as a hero in India.
In the lead-up to his release, crowds on the Indian side thronged the road to the crossing, shouting nationalist slogans and waving Indian flags.
Tensions had escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on February 14.
India accused Pakistan of harbouring the Jaish-e Mohammad group behind the attack and Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a strong response.
Islamabad denied it helped the militant Islamist group.
Pakistan has been at pains to insist it wants talks to end the crisis. The United States and other world powers have urged restraint.
Before the pilot was released, Pakistani television stations broadcast video of him, looking cleaned up and thanking the Pakistani Army for treating him well.
“The Pakistani Army is a very professional service,” he said.
There was some firing along the contested border dividing Kashmir on Friday, according to a spokesman for India’s defence ministry, but the hostilities were well short of previous days.
Pakistan reopened some airports on Friday, after easing airspace restrictions that had disrupted flights between Asia and Europe for several days during the conflict.
Relations between the two countries, however, remain strained.
India also faces an ongoing battle against armed militants in its portion of Kashmir. On Friday, four security personnel and a civilian were killed in a gun battle with militants, officials said.
Kashmir has been at the root of two of the three wars fought between India and Pakistan.