Updated at 11:33 a.m. ET on 2019-03-01
Pakistan said Thursday it would return an Indian Air Force pilot who was captured after an aerial combat with Pakistani warplanes, a move that analysts described as a “step forward” by Islamabad to defuse heightened tensions between the rival neighbors.
The pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken into custody after a Pakistani warplane shot down his MiG-21 fighter jet during a dogfight in the skies above the disputed Kashmir region on Wednesday, Indian authorities said.
“As a peace gesture, I announce that Pakistan will release the Indian Air Force pilot who is in our custody tomorrow. [But] do not confuse our desire for de-escalation as [our] weakness,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told his parliament.
The aerial fight came after India claimed that its warplanes had pounded a militant training camp in Balakot, a town in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on Tuesday. Varthaman safely ejected after striking a Pakistani aircraft, but his parachute drifted into the Pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir, Indian officials said.
New Delhi had on Wednesday warned Islamabad against causing any harm to the Indian pilot and demanded his “immediate and safe return.”
Varthaman is set to be released to Indian authorities at the Wagah border in India’s Amritsar city on Friday, government sources told BenarNews.
Khan also said in parliament that he made an unsuccessful attempt to call Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the previous night.
“I tried to call Narendra Modi yesterday. I wanted to make clear that Pakistan did not want any kind of escalation,” he said.
Several nations, including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and China, meanwhile have urged the nuclear-armed neighbors to exercise restraint.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he “spent a good deal of time on the phone” Wednesday night with leaders of India and Pakistan, encouraging them to avoid taking “any action that would escalate and create increased risk.”
“I am hopeful that we can take down the tension there, at least for the time being, so they can begin to have conversations that don’t portend risk of escalation to either of the two countries,” Pompeo told reporters accompanying him aboard his plane when he flew from Vietnam to the Philippines.
Dossier on ‘specific details’
India’s Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor told reporters during a joint military briefing in New Delhi that the “next step [on de-escalation] will be taken only when the pilot is handed over.”
New Delhi said it had handed over to Pakistan a dossier on “specific details” of involvement of the militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) in the Pulwama militant attack in Indian Kashmir on Feb. 14, during which a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into a paramilitary convoy, killing at least 40 soldiers.
India and Pakistan have fought three full-blown wars – in 1965, 1971 and 1998. Two of them were over the ownership of Kashmir, which the two sides claim in its entirety. The region has grappled with a separatist insurgency that has killed at least 70,000 people since the late 1980s.
Kapoor said the Pakistani Army had made factually incorrect statements on Wednesday that it had shot down two Indian fighter jets.
“We lost only one MiG-21 that was hit after it destroyed one of Pakistan’s F-16 that had entered into Indian airspace,” he said.
India earlier claimed that “a very large number” of militants were killed when its fighter jets demolished a JeM training camp on Tuesday. Pakistan said the Indian operation was a failure that did not kill anyone.
‘A great gesture’
Observers saw the captured pilot’s expected release as a move that could possibly ease tensions with India.
“The decision to hand over Wing Commander Abhinandan is a great gesture and shouldn’t be seen in isolation. It also comes at a time when Pakistan could’ve chosen to further escalate an already tensed situation. I see it as a mark of reconciliation,” Indian Kashmir’s former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said on Twitter.
“Our leadership should reciprocate,” she tweeted.
However, defense analysts said that India should continue to maintain pressure on Pakistan to uproot terrorism from its soil.
“India will only show willingness to engage in talks with Pakistan if Islamabad acts against militants who are operating in Pakistan,” retired Maj. Gen. Ravi Arora told BenarNews.
Kuldeep Khoda, Indian Kashmir’s former chief of police, agreed.
“The announcement of the release [of the Indian pilot] is indeed a good gesture but will not satisfy India, which wants Pakistan to dismantle terror infrastructure,” Khoda told BenarNews. “But it may temporarily defuse tension between the two sides.”
Mohammad Amin Pirzada in Srinagar, India contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly reported that India and Pakistan fought a war in 1975 and that at least 46 troops were killed in the Feb. 14 car-bombing.