An Indian pilot captured by Pakistan after his fighter jet went down over disputed Kashmir has been handed back to India at the Wagah road border crossing between the two countries.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman walked through the gates into India two days after he was captured. His return is expected to avert a wider conflict between the two nuclear-armed countries.
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told lawmakers on Friday that “as a gesture of peace and to de-escalate matters, the Indian pilot who is under arrest with us will be released today.”
In a brief statement, Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor said that the Indian Air Force is happy to have him back and that he will get a medical check up.
In anticipation of his return, a huge crowd had gathered on the Indian side of the border crossing to give a rousing reception to the man who is being hailed as a hero in India. Through the day they waved Indian flags, danced, beat drums, cheered and brought garlands, but many went back disappointed after the pilot’s release was delayed.
He has won admiration following reports in Indian media that after parachuting from his plane, he jumped into a pond and destroyed sensitive documents and maps by swallowing them. Videos of his capture and questioning by Pakistani authorities have been widely shared on social media.
The pilot’s parents were cheered by the passengers of a plane when they learned of their identity as they traveled to New Delhi to meet their son. After his capture, his father, also a former fighter pilot, expressed hopes that his son does not get tortured.
Before the pilot was released, Pakistani television stations broadcast a video of him thanking the Pakistani army for treating him well.
Indian authorities canceled a military ceremony in which the flags of the two countries are lowered daily at sundown at the Wagah border.
The tensions between the two countries spiraled after India conducted an airstrike inside Pakistan to target a suspected militant camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammad that claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries. A day later there were claims from Pakistan of bringing down two Indian jets and from India of bringing down one in aerial combat. Pakistan captured the Indian pilot after his MiG fighter jet crashed in enemy territory.
Both countries have been under intense pressure to calm their tensions from the international community. While the release of the pilot appears to have made them step back from a confrontation, the Kashmir border witnessed another day of heavy mortar and artillery shelling for the fourth straight day on Friday. Indian authorities said one woman was killed and an Indian soldier wounded in the exchange of fire.
In Indian Kashmir, schools and colleges remain closed, hospitals have been stocked with medicine and worried residents have been stocking food fearing a conflict between the South Asian rivals.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a political rally in the state of Tamil Nadu that every Indian was proud of the fighter pilot -- Abhinandan Varthaman is from the southern Indian state. He said India will no longer be helpless in the wake of terror and said the events of recent days had brought the nation closer. “The way the nation has supported the armed forces is extraordinary and I bow to every Indian for that.”
This is not the first time that an Indian pilot is being released by Pakistan. In 1999 an air force pilot was released after eight days in Pakistan's custody after his jet crashed in their territory during a conflict between the two countries.