Indian pilot handed back by Pakistan in ‘peace gesture’

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Pakistan on Friday handed over pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India through Pakistan-India border in Wagah (Photo Courtesy – Pakistan Air Force)
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Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, stands under armed escort near Pakistan-India border in Wagah, Pakistan. (Reuters)
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Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, stands under armed escort near Pakistan-India border in Wagah, Pakistan. (Reuters)
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Indian Air Force police cars come out of the India-Pakistan border restricted area, after Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was freed to return to India. (AFP)
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Indian security forces pose with the national flag and pictures of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman during an event to pray for his return, at Kalikambal temple, in Chennai. (AFP)
Updated 02 March 2019

Indian pilot handed back by Pakistan in ‘peace gesture’

  • Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released by Pakistan in a gesture of peace through the Wagah-Attari joint check-post
  • Wing Commander Abhinandan was brought by Pakistani authorities from Rawalpindi to Lahore and handed over to the Red Cross before being brought to the check-post

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.

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.

Polls tighten on eve of Britain’s Brexit election

Updated 30 min 56 sec ago

Polls tighten on eve of Britain’s Brexit election

  • Polls open on Thursday for the third time in four years in what is widely seen as a re-run of the 2016 referendum

MIDDLESBROUGH: Britain’s political party leaders on Wednesday criss-crossed the country in a frantic last-minute push for votes, after polls predicted a tight finish to a highly-charged general election aimed at settling the long-running Brexit crisis.
Polls open on Thursday for the third time in four years in what is widely seen as a re-run of the 2016 referendum in which a narrow majority opted to leave the EU.
Parliament’s splintered parties — some seeking broader independence and others wanting to keep Britain’s European ties — repeatedly rejected the divorce terms former prime minister Theresa May struck with Brussels.
Her tearful resignation brought Boris Johnson into the fray with a vow to succeed where she had failed.
The former London mayor and foreign minister has spent the campaign hammering home a “Get Brexit Done” message aimed solely at winning a majority that could let him get the deal passed by the end of next month.
Yet a closely watched poll showed his Conservatives’ lead over the main opposition Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn narrowing.
The YouGov study showed the Tories on course for a 28-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons under Britain’s first-past-the-post system.
It had forecast a 68-seat edge in a poll released on November 27.
“A Conservative majority is the most likely outcome but a hung parliament remains entirely plausible,” said University of Kent professor Matthew Goodwin.
A result in which the biggest party does not command a majority raises the possibility of Brexit being delayed for years or even canceled in a second referendum.
It could also end the political career of Johnson — a sharply polarizing figure whose appeal to core Tory voters made him the logical choice to replace the increasingly hapless May.
“It could not be tighter,” Johnson said while helping to load milk bottles onto delivery vehicles while campaigning in northern England. “We’re fighting for every vote.”
Turnout will be vital in Britain’s first December election in nearly a century. Rain and even snow are forecast for parts of election day.
Corbyn is a veteran leftist campaigner who confounded pollsters by coming within a whisker of winning the last election in 2017.
The teetotal socialist is pushing a radically left-wing program to overhaul public services and “end austerity” caused by the global financial meltdown of 2008-09.
But his vague stance on Brexit and accusations of anti-Semitism in Labour have forced several top members out of the party and shadowed his campaign.
Corbyn told the undecided that they could vote for “hope.”
“We will put money in your pocket because you deserve it. The richest and big business will pay for it,” he said.
Corbyn’s proposal for Brexit is for Labour to strike a more EU-friendly agreement with Brussels. Voters would then choose between that deal and the option of staying in the bloc.
But Brexit remains a political liability for Labour. Corbyn has said as little as possible about the subject and steered attention toward the taxpayer-funded National Healthcare System (NHS).
Labour accuses Johnson of abandoning the principle of free treatment for all by potentially opening up the NHS to “Big Pharma” in a post-Brexit trade deal with US President Donald Trump.
Both Johnson and Trump deny the claims.
Polling suggests Corbyn stands almost no chance of winning the election outright.
Yet support from the pro-EU Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats could still make him the first Labour prime minister since Gordon Brown in 2010.
SNP backing for a Labour coalition government could come at the cost of a promise to back a second referendum on Scottish independence.
The YouGov poll said the SNP was gaining momentum and on course to win 41 seats. But it projected just 15 seats for the Liberal Democrats.
Analysts believe the party made a mistake by initially promising to simply cancel Brexit.
“I don’t want Brexit of course, but we have to be pragmatic, it was a referendum, we have to abide by that,” Londoner Steve Banham told AFP.
The Lib Dems now promise to back a second referendum. But this stance makes them almost indistinguishable from Corbyn’s Labour.
Some potential voters voiced dispair at Britain’s political mess.
“Everyone thinks it’s all going to be over at the end of January if the Conservatives win but it won’t, it will just go on for years,” said voter Judy Wilkinson.