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Indian pilot returned back safely to its homeland

02 March, 2019

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LAHORE: A pilot shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft returned to India on Friday, after being freed in what Islamabad called a ‘peace gesture’ following the biggest standoff between the two countries in years.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, captured on Wednesday after his jet was shot down by the Pakistan Air Force, crossed into India at the famed Wagah crossing point. He was filmed walking across the Wagah pavilion in civilian clothes and was received by Indian military officials on their side.

Thousands of Indians, waving flags, singing and dancing with patriotic fervour, had gathered at the crossing point on Friday afternoon but the crowd dwindled after his release was delayed by hours due to procedural issues.

A group of schoolchildren brandished a painting of the pilot, along with saffron, white and green Indian flags and placards reading, ‘Hope for peace between India and Pakistan’ and ‘Thank you Imran Khan’.

“Pakistan is releasing our pilot, I thank them for that,” said Kulwant Singh, who has run a food stall at the crossing for 20 years.

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

Before the pilot was released, Pakistani television stations broadcast a video of him, looking cleaned up, and thanking the Pakistani Army for treating him well. “My name is Wing Commander Abhinandan,” he stated for the record in the statement. “I am a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force. I was in search of the target when your [Pakistan] Air Force shot me down. I had to eject the plane which had sustained damage. As soon as I ejected and when my parachute opened and when I fell down, I had a pistol with me,” he continued.

“There were many people. I had only one way to save myself: I dropped my pistol and tried to run,” he was heard saying in the video. “People chased me, their emotions were running high. Just then, two Pakistan Army officials came and saved me. Pakistan Army captains saved from the people and did not let any harm come to me. They took me to their unit where I was administered first aid and then I was taken to the hospital where I further underwent a medical exam and received more aid,” he said.

“The Pakistan Army is a very professional service. I see peace in it. I have spent time with the Pakistan Army [and] I am very impressed,” he said. “Indian media always stretches the truth,” he regretted. “The smallest of things are presented in a very incendiary manner and people get misled,” he concluded.

Earlier in the day, Acting Indian High Commissioner Gaurav Ahluwalia visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad to fulfill formalities ahead of the Indian pilot’s repatriation. Separately, Indian Air Attaché Group Captain JT Krain travelled to Lahore with the pilot’s travel documents and escorted him back to India.

Matters escalated alarmingly after a massive suicide bombing killed 40 Indian troops on February 14 in Indian-held Kashmir, with the attack claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammad. Twelve days later Indian warplanes launched a strike inside Pakistani territory, claiming to have hit a militant camp. An infuriated Islamabad denied casualties or damage, and a day later launched its own incursion across the LoC. That sparked the dogfight which ended in Pakistan shooting down two of India’s warplanes, and Abhinandan’s capture.

Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Thursday that the pilot would be released on Friday, 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.

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