Pakistan to free captured Indian pilot in goodwill gesture



Stranded Pakistani passengers wait for transportation February 28 in Attari, India, following the temporary suspension by the Pakistani authorities of the Samjhauta Express rail service. The train, also called the Friendship Express, runs between Delhi and Attari in India and Lahore in Pakistan, outside Attari Railway station. [Narinder Nanu/AFP]

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan Thursday (February 28) said it will release a captured Indian pilot in a "peace gesture", taking a step towards rapprochement in conflict sparked by a militant attack earlier this month.

The pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, has become the face of the crisis since he was shot down in a rare aerial engagement between the South Asian neighbours over the disputed region of Kashmir on Wednesday (February 27).

With anger boiling over his capture in India, analysts have touted him as a potential trump card for Islamabad.

"As a peace gesture, we are releasing the Indian pilot tomorrow," Prime Minister Imran Khan told a joint session of parliament.


Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman (shown) is in custody, say Pakistani military officials. [ISPR]

A sign of a thaw

Parliamentarians stamped their feet in approval at his statement, the first sign of a potential thaw after a dangerous sequence of events between the two countries sent tensions soaring.

The air-to-air confrontation took place after India Tuesday (February 26) said its warplanes attacked a Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) militant camp in Balakot, Pakistan. The strike was retaliation for the February 14 suicide bombing claimed by JeM that killed 40 Indian troops in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Tit-for-tat raids across the hair-trigger Pakistani-Indian border have alarmed world powers including China and the United States, who have urged restraint.

Pakistan has said it downed two Indian fighters, while India confirmed it had lost one plane and claimed it had shot down a Pakistani jet.

Avoiding miscalculations

"I am afraid of miscalculations," Khan said. "We should not even think of war, especially in view of the lethality of the weapons that we have."

Pakistan has closed its airspace, though it is expected to open at 6pm Friday (March 1), Dawn tweeted, citing Pakistan's Civil Air Authority.

The Pakistani army said Thursday its troops were on high alert along the Line of Control, the de facto border that divides Kashmir.

Authorities have tightened security across the country, with hospitals on alert and leave for police and other security personnel cancelled in some cities.

With anger boiling in India over Pakistan's capture of the pilot, Modi called on his country's citizens Thursday to "stand as a wall".

Analysts have said the pilot's fate, and his safe release, could prove central to the neighbours pulling back from the brink.

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When will Colonel Habib's realease be made possible?