New Delhi:A pilot shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft returned to India on Friday, after being freed in what Islamabad called a “peace gesture” following the biggest standoff between the two countries in years.
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 on Friday 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.
On Thursday and Friday both countries continued to fire barrages across the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border dividing Kashmir, leaving at least one person dead.
An infuriated Islamabad denied casualties or damage, but a day later launched its own incursion across the LoC.
That sparked the dogfight which ended in both countries claiming they had shot down each other’s warplanes, and Abhinandan’s capture.
Prime Minister Imran Khan unexpectedly announced Thursday that he would be released in the first sign of a potential thaw.Khan alluded to the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war and called for talks – even as he warned India should not take the announcement as a sign of weakness.
Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan has become a national hero in India, with his parents receiving a standing ovation as they boarded a flight to welcome their son.
Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi meanwhile said he was boycotting a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Abu Dhabi, as India had been invited.
The parents of handlebar-moustached 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.