WAGAH/LAHORE: Pakistani authorities have handed back a captured Indian fighter pilot shot down in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released to Indian Army officers on Friday at the Wagah-Attari border crossing between the two countries.
A straight-backed, somber-faced Varthaman wearing a crisp white shirt and a navy blazer, was shown on Pakistani TV channels walking across the border at around 9 p.m. accompanied by Pakistani paramilitary rangers.
As he crossed over into India, an Indian officer shook his hand, and another walked him onto Indian soil as the iron gates of the border slammed shut behind him.
Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan!
The nation is proud of your exemplary courage.
Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 1, 2019
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Thursday that the pilot’s release was a “peace gesture” to India.
Varthaman was held by locals and then taken into custody by Pakistani armed forces on Wednesday when his MIG-21 warplane was shot down during an aerial duel between India and Pakistan air forces over Kashmir.
The joint border post at Wagah (Pakistan) and Attari (India) is famous for the military ceremony of the lowering of the national flags of the two countries, which takes place at sunset every day.
India postponed the ceremony on its side on Friday, but Pakistan Rangers went ahead as usual in front of large crowds who shouted slogans in support of the Pakistan Army.
The decision to free Varthaman in a bid to defuse tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations is being widely seen as a major diplomatic coup by Pakistan, and has put pressure on the Indian government of Narendra Modi to wind down its war rhetoric.
Hina Rabbani Khar, former foreign minister of Pakistan, told Arab News: “The decision to release the Indian pilot reflected the Pakistani policy of de-escalation of war hysteria.”
She said India was “crying war” but the world should note that Pakistan was trying to avoid it.
Defense expert Maj. Gen. Ejaz Awan said: “Pakistan is a country that believes in peace and hates war. The return of the pilot is proof of our peace-loving attitude. The decision of the prime minister, Imran Khan, was really sensible and daring.”
Peace activists hope the Pakistani gesture will open the door to talks between the two South Asian countries to find a way to resolve the stalemate over Kashmir.
“It must have been a very difficult decision for the (Pakistani) government to reach, but the courage demonstrated in bringing sanity to such a tense situation must be appreciated,” said Mohammed Tahseen, convenor of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy.
“As a peace activist, I hope that this gesture will help in opening avenues to negotiation and resolve the issues of the Kashmiri people in a peaceful manner,” he added.