Pakistan vows to release Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman

Pakistan’s prime minister has pledged his country would release a captured Indian jetfighter pilot the following day, a move that could help defuse the most-serious confrontation in two decades between the nuclear-armed neighbours over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Prime Minister Imran Khan made the announcement in an address to both houses of Parliament, saying he tried to reach his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Wednesday with a message that he wants to de-escalate tensions.

“We are releasing the Indian pilot as a goodwill gesture tomorrow,” Mr Khan said.

He did not say whether the release was conditional.

Abhinandan Varthaman

An Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak publicly, warned that even if Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is returned home, New Delhi would not hesitate to strike its neighbour first if it feared a similar militant attack was looming.

Mr Modi earlier in the day warned that “India’s enemies are conspiring to create instability in the country through terror attacks.”

Mr Khan also said that he had feared that India might launch a missile attack, but the situation was later defused. He did not elaborate.

“Pakistan wants peace, but it should not be treated as our weakness,” Mr Khan said “The region will prosper if there is peace and stability. It is good for both sides.””/>
media_cameraImran Khan says Pakistan will release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Picture: Supplied

World powers have called on the nations to de-escalate the tensions gripping the contested region since a February 14 suicide bombing killed over 40 Indian paramilitary troops in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

India responded with a pre-dawn air strike on Tuesday inside Pakistan, the first such raid since the two nations’ 1971 war over territory that later became Bangladesh.

The situation then escalated further with Wednesday’s aerial skirmish, which saw Pakistan say it shot down two Indian aircraft, one of which crashed in Pakistan-held part of Kashmir and the other in India-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan later aired a video of a man it identified as the Indian pilot.”/>
media_cameraIndian Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman in Pakistan. Picture: Supplied

India acknowledged one of its MiG-21s, a Soviet-era fighter jet, was “lost” in skirmishes with Pakistan.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs said late on Wednesday that it “strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian air force,” and that it expects his immediate and safe return.

India also said it shot down a Pakistani warplane, something Islamabad denied.

Kashmir has been divided but claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan since almost immediately after the two countries’ creation in 1947. They have fought three wars against each other, two directly dealing with the disputed region.

Both Indian and Pakistani officials reported small-arms fire and shelling along the Kashmir region into Thursday morning. There were no reported casualties.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal acknowledged his country received a “dossier” from India about the February 14 attack. He refused to provide details about the information that New Delhi has shared.”/>
media_cameraIndian students pray for a speedy release of Indian air force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. Picture: AFP”/>
media_cameraCongress activists shout slogans against Pakistan. Picture: AFP

World leaders weighing in on the tension included US President Donald Trump, who began remarks at a news conference in Vietnam after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by focusing on India and Pakistan.

“I think hopefully that’s going to be coming to an end,” Mr Trump said, without elaborating. “It’s been going on for a long time — decades and decades. There’s a lot of dislike, unfortunately, so we’ve been in the middle trying to help them both out, see if we can get some organisation and some peace, and I think probably that’s going to be happening.” Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also said Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, planned to come to Islamabad with an urgent message from the kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Mr Modi, in his first remarks since the pilot’s capture, gave a rallying speech ahead of elections in the coming months.

“Our defence forces are serving gallantly at the border,” he told tens of thousands gathered across the country to listen to him in a videoconference from New Delhi. “The country is facing challenging times and it will fight, live, work and win unitedly.””/>
media_cameraPakistani students hold placards with the image of Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian air force pilot captured by Pakistan authorities in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Picture: AFP

Meanwhile, India’s finance minister, Arun Jaitley, suggested at a news conference that Indian special forces carry out secret missions to capture terrorist leaders in Pakistan, invoking the 2011 US Navy Seal operation to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“I remember when US Navy Seals went to Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden, then why can’t India?” he asked. “This used to be only an imagination, a wish, a frustration and disappointment. But it’s possible today.”

Just weeks before general elections are due in India, the head of Mr Modi’s party in India’s Karnataka state, B.S. Yeddyurappa, said India’s pre-dawn air strikes in Pakistan on Tuesday would help the party at the polls.

The violence marked the most serious escalation of the long-simmering conflict since 1999, when Pakistan’s military sent a ground force into Indian-controlled Kashmir at Kargil. That year also saw an Indian fighter jet shoot down a Pakistani naval aircraft, killing all 16 on board.

Originally published as Pakistan vows to release Indian pilot

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