Pakistan releases captured Indian pilot in ‘peace gesture’

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International desk, Mar 01: A fighter pilot shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft received a joyous reception Friday when he was handed over to Indian officials at a border crossing in what Islamabad called a “gesture of peace.”Dressed in a blue blazer and sporting a black eye from his ordeal, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman walked through the Wagah crossing point, where flag-waving Indians had amassed to greet him with songs and dance.

His handover was delayed as he underwent a medical checkup and then was accompanied to the border by members of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

After two tense days, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told lawmakers Thursday that “we are releasing the Indian pilot as a goodwill message tomorrow.”

The 38-year-old pilot was shot down over Kashmir on Wednesday, after a dogfight in the skies over the disputed Himalayan region that sent tensions between the two countries to their highest levels in years.

After bailing out of his aircraft with a parachute, Varthaman fired his pistol in the air to keep angry young locals at bay – but when they got too close, he jumped into a pond and swallowed some documents before being captured, according to The Washington Post.

He later appeared in a bizarre video tweeted by Pakistan’s Information Ministry.

The bloodied aviator was seen in the clip – which some say may run afoul of the Geneva Conventions — sipping tea and praising his Pakistani military captors for treating him well.

Tensions have been running high since Indian warplanes crossed into Pakistan on Tuesday carrying out what India called a pre-emptive strike against militants blamed for a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir in which 40 Indian troops were killed.

Pakistan retaliated, shooting down two Indian aircraft Wednesday and capturing Varthaman.

World leaders have scrambled to head off an all-out war on the Asian subcontinent, with President Trump saying in Hanoi on Thursday that he had been involved in seeking to de-escalate the conflict.

Meanwhile, fresh violence erupted in Kashmir, with seven people killed in the Indian-administered part of the volatile territory, suggesting that the crisis may not be over yet.

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

Pakistan’s civil aviation authority partially reopened the country’s airspace on Friday, allowing travel to four major cities, another sign that tensions with India were de-escalating.

Varthaman appeared on a popular Indian TV show eight years ago with several other fighter pilots, according to Washington Post.

The hosts asked them what the main prerequisite was to be a fighter pilot.

“Attitude,” one said. “Bad attitude,” Varthaman added with a smile.

Source: News Agencies