ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI - Pakistan will release the Indian fighter pilot captured after his plane was shot down earlier this week in the disputed Kashmir region.
Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Thursday during a parliamentary speech that it will turn over Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman on Friday as a "peace gesture" toward its nuclear-armed neighbor. "In our desire of peace, I announce that tomorrow [Friday], and as a first step to open negotiations [with India], Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody,” Khan said.
Varthaman was captured Wednesday after flying over the Line of Control, the de-facto border in the disputed Kashmir region, and into the airspace of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. A second Indian fighter jet was also shot down during the skirmish, but crashed in India-controlled Kashmir. New Delhi also claims it shot down a Pakistani fighter jet, a claim denied by Islamabad.
The announcement came just a few hours after U.S. President Donald Trump indicated to reporters in Hanoi that the United States was playing a role to help lower tensions between the South Asian nuclear armed rivals. “We have reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India. They have been going at it, we have been involved in trying to help them stop. And we have some reasonably decent news. I think, hopefully that will be coming to an end,” Trump noted.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Thursday on a flight from Vietnam to Manila he “spent a good deal of time” speaking Wednesday night with the leaders of India and Pakistan. Pompeo said the conversations were aimed at “making sure there was a good information exchange” between the leaders and encouraging them "not to take any action that would escalate and greatly increase risk.”
The recent developments involving both countries was likely to be discussed Thursday during a meeting between U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale and the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Asad Majeed Khan, at the State Department.
Despite Pakistan's announcement that it would return the captured Indian pilot, India remains on a "heightened" state of alert, according to Indian army Major General Surendra Singh Mahal.
"We are fully prepared and in a heightened state of readiness to respond to any provocation from Pakistan," Mahal said at a news conference in New Delhi.
Indian police also tightened security Thursday in states bordering Pakistan. Barricades were erected and additional officers were deployed in India's northern Punjab state, the Ludhiana District, the state of Gujarat and the desert state of Rajasthan.
Pakistan closed off its civilian airspace after the aerial firefight, a decision that forced Thai Airways to cancel a number of flights, leaving nearly 5,000 passengers scrambling to find other flights. Thai Airways later received permission to fly over China's airspace.
Pakistan and India have moved closer to the brink of war since 40 Indian paramilitary forces were killed in a suicide attack in the town of Pulwama in Indian-controlled Kashmir on February 14. New Delhi has accused Pakistan of shielding militant group Jaish e Mohammad, which has claimed responsibility for the attack. A spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry says it has received a dossier from India about the attack.
Indian jets entered Pakistani airspace Tuesday for the first time since 1971, when the two countries went to war to destroy what they said were JeM’s training camps in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The rivals have gone to war three times since achieving independence from Britain in 1947.
The two sides briefly exchanged fire across the contested border in Kashmir on Thursday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said his Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, would arrive in Islamabad later Thursday carrying a special message from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.