–IAF pilot Abhinandan enters India via Wagah, says it is ‘good to be back’
–FO says Pakistan ordered release as ‘peace gesture’
ISLAMABAD: Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman on Friday entered his home country India via Wagah Border after Pakistan released him as a peace gesture.
Abhinandan was brought to the border crossing amid tight security underwent formalities, including the signing of necessary documents and a medical examination by the International Committee of Red Cross, ahead of his release. He was accompanied by Foreign Office India Director Dr Fariha Bugti.
His handover took several hours as a roster of procedures were completed including a medical checkup to verify his health and condition before being handed over to his countrymen.
India has reportedly canceled the flag-lowering ceremony on the border. On the Indian side of the border, Indian policemen and military personnel greeted Varthaman who was dressed in civilian clothes, wearing a blue blazer and gray dress pants.
Though the road on the Indian side of the border was lined with well-wishers in the morning, but it had been dispersed by the time Varthaman crossed the border around 9 pm.
The Foreign Office confirmed his handing over to the Indian authorities in a statement, moments before his return. “Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman has been returned to India today,” the statement said.
“He was arrested when his military jet MiG-21 crashed in Azad Jammu Kashmir after being shot down by Pakistan Air Force for violating Pakistani airspace on February 27, 2019,” the press release added.
“While in captivity, he was treated with dignity and in line with international law,” it said, adding that Prime Minister Imran Khan announced “his [pilot] return as a goodwill gesture aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India.”
‘HAPPY TO HAVE HIM BACK’:
“We are happy to have him back,” said a top IAF officer Friday night shortly after the captured Indian pilot was handed over to Indian authorities by Pakistan at the border point.
Indian Air Vice Marshal R G K Kapoor, assistant chief of Air Staff, told reporters that the pilot will be taken for a detailed medical examination. The Indian air vice marshal did not take any questions from the media.
Meanwhile, Abhinandan also gave a media message before his crossing over in which he lauded the military forces of Pakistan for professionalism.
“The Pakistan Army is a very professional service. I see peace in it. I have spent time with the Pakistan Army [and] I am very impressed,” he said.
After his crossing into India, Abhinandan told officials at Attari check post that it was “good to be back”. The deputy commissioner of Amritsar told Indian media outlets that pilot Abhinandan was “smiling” when he crossed the Wagah Border over to enter India.
Indian media noted that the pilot appeared to be “okay” by his physical appearance and body language.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to welcome back Wing Commander Abhinandan, a few minutes after he crossed into India through the Wagah-Attari border.
Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan!
The nation is proud of your exemplary courage.
Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 1, 2019
“Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan! The nation is proud of your exemplary courage. Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians. Vande Mataram!” the prime minister tweeted.
Abhi, who was captured after his MiG 21 jet was shot down by Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in Pakistani airspace near Line of Control (Control), has been in the custody of the Pakistan Army for past few days. India had called for his release in line with Geneva Convention.
— RT (@RT_com) March 1, 2019
Eventually, Imran Khan, during a joint session of parliament, announced to release the captured pilot as a gesture of peace.
“In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow, and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody,” PM Imran said while addressing lawmakers on Thursday.
The international community, politicians, journalists and academics at both sides of the border embraced Imran as “true statesman” after his government decided to free a captured pilot a day after detention.
However, the Indian government and media in contrast to the public’s reaction portrayed it as India’s huge ‘diplomatic victory,’claiming that Pakistan had ‘cracked under pressure’. On the other hand, The Modi-led BJP government is also under fire from the opposition for “blatant politicisation of the armed forces.’
Earlier in the day, acting Indian high commissioner arrived at the Foreign Office where he was formally informed of the handing over of captured Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
Tensions between Pakistan and India escalated dramatically on February 14 when a young Kashmiri rammed an explosives-laden car into an Indian paramilitary convoy, killing at least 44 soldiers. India was quick to blame Pakistan for the suicide bombing.
PM Imran offered every possible help in the investigation, but India turned down the offer and whipped up war hysteria.
On February 26, the Indian Air Force violated Pakistani airspace. The country’s top civil and military leadership declared the violation of airspace by Indian fighter jets “uncalled for aggression” and decided that the country would respond at a “time and place of its choosing”.
On February 27, Pakistan announced it had shot down two Indian fighter jets that attempted to violate its airspace and captured an Indian pilot. The military’s media wing later released a video of the pilot, who introduced himself as Wing Commander Abhinandan bearing service number 27981.
Pakistani military’s spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said in a press conference that the armed forces had responsibly retaliated to Indian incursion by striking a target few miles from an Indian military’s administrative unit to ensure there were no human life or collateral damage.
“We decided to not hit a military target or endanger human life. We did not want to retaliate at the cost of regional peace. We do not want escalation,” he told reporters.
A few hours later, Prime Minister Imran Khan took the nation into confidence over the armed forces’ response. As escalating tensions fuelled concerns of all-out war between nuclear-tipped Pakistan, Imran warned of catastrophic consequences should “better sense” not prevail.
The premier ended his speech with another peace talks offer and cooperation in Pulwama attack investigation to India.
A day earlier, the top political leadership of the country was given an in-camera briefing at the Parliament House.
Opposition parties expressed satisfaction over the briefing mainly conducted by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor.
An official handout issued by the National Assembly Secretariat said: “The forum unanimously expressed that they stand united against any aggression against Pakistan and will support the government and its institutions unconditionally.”
It said the participants also “expressed hope that those who want peace and stability will prevail as war is not an option but a failure of policy”.