Friday Mar 01, 2019
LAHORE: Pakistan on Friday released captured Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman as a "gesture of peace" towards New Delhi and an effort to de-escalate tensions between the two countries.
Rangers officials handed over the captured pilot to Indian officials at Wagah border crossing.
Officials of the Indian High Commission and Indian Air Attache Group Captain JT Krain, who reached Lahore with Abhinandan's travel documents, were also present at the time of handing over of captured Indian pilot.
The Indian air attache also left with Abhinandan for India from the Wagah border crossing.
"Wing Commander Abhinandan, Indian POW, returned to India today, as committed by PM Khan in his address to joint sitting of parliament, yesterday," Foreign Office spokesman Dr Mohammad Faisal tweeted.
The Foreign Office of Pakistan said while in captivity, Abhinandan was treated "with dignity and in line with international law".
Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured when his MiG-21 among two Indian military aircraft was shot down by Pakistan Air Force after they ventured into the Pakistani airspace.
The move to release the pilot was announced Thursday by Prime Minister Imran Khan at a joint session of Parliament, a day after Pakistan shot down two Indian aircraft that had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and captured Wing Commander Abhinandan.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi earlier today confirmed Wing Commander Abhinandan would be handed back to Indian officials at the Wagah border crossing.
"As the prime minister has said, as a peace gesture and to de-escalate matters, the Indian pilot will be released. So today, this afternoon, he will be released at Wagah," Qureshi told a joint session of parliament Friday.
The Wagah crossing gate is famed for hosting an elaborate daily ceremony by Indian and Pakistani soldiers at sundown. Thousands of people had already gathered on the Indian side early Friday to welcome the pilot home, an AFP journalist said.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj earlier commented that "India does not wish to see further escalation of the situation". Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to make a public comment.
PM Imran Khan, while addressing the joint session of Parliament, urged India not to escalate the situation as he announced to free the captured Indian pilot.
“Don’t take this any further, Pakistan will be forced to retaliate," he warned, noting that the de-escalation efforts made by Pakistan should not be considered as weakness.
"Despite us opening the Kartarpur corridor, we received no response from India," he said.
"When the Pulwama attack happened, we were blamed within 30 minutes," the premier lamented. "I asked them to share evidence."
"We did not want to inflict any casualty on India as we wanted to act in a responsible manner. […] I had said that if India does something then we will respond."
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed PM Imran's decision to release the captured Indian fighter pilot, in what was seen as an effort to de-escalate the gravest crisis between the two countries in years.
"The report of the release of the Indian pilot by the Pakistani authorities would be very much a welcome step," UN chief's spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said, in response to a question at a regular briefing at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan congratulated PM Imran on his statesman-like offer to India for de-escalating tensions and working towards peace.
Appreciating the announcement by the Pakistani premier to release the captured pilot, the Turkish president pointed out that this gesture was "a sign of strength."
Indian cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu also hailed the move and called it a noble act.
"Imran Khan every noble act makes a way for itself…your goodwill gesture is ‘a cup of joy’ for a billion people, a nation rejoices…I am overjoyed for his parents and loved ones.”
Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq hoped better sense would prevail after PM Imran's peace gesture.
Former chief minister of Indian-occupied Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti also lauded PM Imran, calling the release of the Indian pilot "a great gesture", and hoped the Indian government would reciprocate.