Pakistan has freed an Indian fighter pilot captured after his plane was shot down in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, amid rising tensions.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was handed over to Indian officials near a border crossing with Pakistan. Minutes earlier, the pilot said on Pakistani TV that he was “very impressed” by the Pakistan army.
On Thursday Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said the pilot’s release was a “peace gesture” to India.
India and Pakistan – both nuclear powers – claim all of Kashmir, but each controls only parts of it.
On Friday Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the events of the past few days had “brought our nation closer”. “The way the nation has supported our armed forces is extraordinary and I bow to every Indian for that,” he said.
The pilot is being hailed as a hero in India, where crowds have been gathering carrying banners and garlands at the symbolic Wagah border crossing – the only legal crossing between India and Pakistan.Tensions between the two countries have escalated sharply in the past few weeks.
On Tuesday, India carried out air strikes on what it said was a militant camp in Pakistan in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed at least 40 Indian troops in Indian-administered Kashmir on 14 February.
A Pakistan-based group said it carried out the attack – the deadliest to take place during a three-decade insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir.
Pakistan – which denies any involvement in the 14 February attack – said it had no choice but to retaliate to the Indian raids with air strikes on Wednesday. That led to a dogfight and the Indian fighter jet being shot down in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Pakistan’s military spokesman said that Pakistan fighter jets had carried out “strikes” – exactly what they did remains unclear – in Indian-administered Kashmir on Wednesday.
Two Indian air force jets then responded, crossing the de facto border that divides Kashmir. “Our jets were ready and we shot both of them down,” Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said.
He said that one Indian pilot was in the custody of the Pakistani army.
Images then circulated of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s capture, which were condemned for what appeared to be a physical attack at the hands of residents in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, but also praised because of the actions of the Pakistani soldiers who intervened to create a barrier.
Pakistan’s information ministry published – but subsequently deleted – a video showing the blindfolded pilot, who could be heard requesting water, just after he had been captured. In later footage, he could be seen sipping tea from a cup without a blindfold.
India’s foreign ministry later issued a statement demanding the release of its fighter pilot and condemning the images, describing them as a “vulgar display of an injured personnel”.
The pilot’s family have not yet commented on the events.