Airman coming home: IAF pilot being released as a goodwill gesture, says Imran Khan
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday played a gambit for de-escalating tensions with India, announcing the release of a captured Indian pilot against the backdrop of pressure from New Delhi and other countries to act against terror emanating from his country’s soil.
Addressing a joint session of Parliament in Islamabad, Khan said Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, taken into custody when his MiG-21 jet was downed during an engagement along the Line of Control (LoC) on Wednesday, would be freed on Friday as a “peace gesture”.
Tensions between the two sides have spiralled after Pakistan used combat jets to target Indian military facilities on Wednesday, a day after India conducted an air strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) facility within Pakistan. The banned group claimed responsibility for the February 14 terror attack in Pulwama that left 40 paramilitary personnel dead and triggered the latest stand-off.
Khan reiterated recent remarks about Pakistan being forced to retaliate if there were any further strikes by India, though his measured speech was largely devoted to the need to de-escalate tensions between the two countries.
“We have captured an Indian pilot. As a peace gesture, we will release him tomorrow and send him back to India,” Khan said to the thumping of desks by lawmakers.
“I say today to India from this platform, don’t take this any further. Whatever you do, Pakistan will be forced to retaliate. These two countries, with the weapons we have, we shouldn’t even think in this way.”
The Indian government is “happy the IAF pilot is being released” though things can move forward only if Pakistan creates the environment by taking immediate, credible and verifiable action terrorists and anti-India proxies operating from its soil, people familiar with developments in New Delhi said.
Before Khan announced the release of Varthaman, the Indian side made it clear that Pakistan would not be allowed to use the captured Indian pilot as a bargaining tool, people familiar with developments said. A demarche or formal diplomatic representation handed over to Pakistan on Wednesday had clearly stated the pilot must be treated humanely and immediately returned, they said.
The government was keen to avert any attempt by Pakistan to use the pilot to influence the mood of the Indian people, as had happened in the case of passengers of the Indian airliner hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 1999, the people said.
They said there would have been no question of a deal over Varthaman as India had demanded his unconditional return.
The people said it was Pakistan that had escalated the situation by targeting Indian military facilities, whereas New Delhi had specifically targeted a JeM base to pre-empt planned suicide attacks.
India’s stance had been accepted by major Western powers and countries across the world, many of whom had called on Pakistan to eliminate terrorist infrastructure in their official statements, they said.
Referring to Khan’s pledges to act if actionable intelligence is provided, they referred to a dossier with extensive evidence on JeM, its camps, leadership and links to attacks that was handed over on Wednesday, and said it was time for Khan to walk the talk.
Khan said he tried to call his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the phone on Wednesday “because we wanted to make it clear we didn’t want any type of escalation”. He didn’t say why the call didn’t go through, but added he hadn’t taken the step to release the pilot out of fear or worry.
There was no official word from the Indian government on Khan’s remarks about the call.
The Indian Air Force welcomed the release of its pilot, with Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor saying, “We are happy our pilot who had fallen across the LoC and was in custody of Pakistan is being released... We only see it as a gesture which is in consonance with all Geneva Conventions.” The conventions apply to the treatment of captured military personnel.
Kapoor said a MiG-21 Bison flown by Varthaman shot down a Pakistani F-16 jet in the aerial engagement on Wednesday. Pakistan has denied any F-16 jets took part in the dogfight. The IAF presented parts of a US-made AMRAAM missile, not used by other jets in the Pakistani fleet, as proof of their deployment on Wednesday.
“In the aerial combat that ensued, one F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force was shot down by Indian Air Force MiG 21 Bison aircraft. The F-16 crashed and fell across the LoC in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. The IAF lost one MiG 21 aircraft,” Kapoor told a news conference.
Before Khan’s speech, US President Donald Trump said in Hanoi: “We have been involved in trying to help them (India and Pakistan) stop and we have some reasonably decent news.”
In his opening statement at a news conference at the end of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump added: “I think hopefully that [tensions] could be coming to an end, it has been going on for a long time.”
Ahead of the air strike on Balakot, Trump had said that India was “looking at something very strong” in response to the loss of 40 troops in the Pulwama terror attack.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called PM Modi to express his deep condolences over the Pulwama terrorist attack and conveyed the solidarity of his country with India in its fight against terror. Modi thanked Putin for Russia’s “steadfast support” for India’s efforts to protect its interests against cross-border terror attacks, a statement from the PMO said.
In the call, Putin conveyed that he “hopes for a quick settlement” of the standoff between India and Pakistan, the Kremlin said in a statement on Thursday.
On Thursday evening, the official Twitter account of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said he spoke on the phone to the prime ministers of India and Pakistan and called for “dialogue and communication” to deal with the tensions.
“Mohamed bin Zayed makes telephone calls to Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, stresses importance of dealing wisely with recent developments and giving priority to dialogue and communication,” the tweet said.
Khan’s announcement was welcomed by politicians in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Good news, whole nation will be relieved. I hope our leadership will also reciprocate this peace gesture. I hope Imran Khan will stand by his word and take steps on Indian dossier on Pulwama attack. Imran Khan has acted like a statesman,” People’s Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti tweeted.
National Conference leader Omar Abdullah expressed happiness and tweeted, “Very glad to know that #WingCommandarAbhinandan will be heading home. I’ll wait for him to be back on Indian soil before I welcome him back but I’m greatly relieved that PM @ImranKhanPTI has announced the imminent release of our pilot.”
Varthaman, a fighter pilot with 16 years of experience and a father of two children, hails from Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district and is the son of retired Air Marshal Simhakutty Varthaman, who played a significant role during the 1999 Kargil conflict when as a Group Captain.
Varthaman’s father on Thursday said in a statement that his son behaved like a “true soldier,” thanking citizens for their support and good wishes.
“I am sure all your hands and blessings are on his head...prayers for his safe return. I pray that he does not get tortured and comes home safe and sound in body and mind,” the veteran IAF officer said.