Pakistan returns Indian pilot in ‘peace gesture’

WAGAH, India (AFP) – A pilot shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft returned to India yesterday, after being freed in what Islamabad called a “peace gesture” following the biggest standoff between the two countries in years.

But fresh violence raged in Kashmir, with seven people killed in the Indian-administered part of the tinder-box territory, suggesting that the crisis may not be over yet.Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, shot down on Wednesday over Kashmir – divided between the nuclear-armed rivals since 1947 – crossed into India at the famed Wagah crossing point, sporting a black eye from his ordeal.

Thousands of Indians, waving flags, singing and dancing with patriotic fervour, had gathered at the crossing point yesterday afternoon but the crowd dwindled after his release was delayed inexplicably by hours.

In New Delhi the announcement of the experienced pilot’s release was seen as a diplomatic victory, but India warned that its military remained on “heightened” alert.

Both countries continued to fire barrages across the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border dividing Kashmir, leaving at least one person dead.

Gun battles on the Indian side left two militants and four members of the Indian security services dead, while a civilian was killed in later protests, police told AFP.

India’s Minister of State for External Affairs and former Army Chief Vijay Kumar Singh tweeted that the “welcome” release of the pilot was “the first of many steps that #Pakistan must take to reinforce their commitment to peace”.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said yesterday that flights could land and depart from its main airports from 1300 GMT, and that others would be opened “gradually”.

The parents of Abhinandan were given a standing ovation by fellow passengers as they boarded a flight to Amritsar near Wagah to welcome their son.

He has become a national hero after purported footage that went viral showed him being beaten by locals after being shot down before Pakistani soldiers intervened, with social media abuzz with #GivebackAbhinandan and #Abhinandanmyhero hashtags.

His subsequent polite refusal to proffer more details than necessary – “I am sorry major, I am not supposed to tell you this” – won him particular sympathy in India.

His father, a retired air force officer, told the Times of India newspaper, “Just look at the way he talked so bravely… a true soldier… we are proud of him.”