‘Good to be back’: IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman on Indian soil after 58 hours in Pak Army custody
Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned to India on Friday night, two days after he was captured in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, potentially capping for now a week of heightened tension that threatened to snowball into a wider military conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Varthaman, dressed in civilian attire, crossed the border at Wagah a little before 9pm and walked across to the Indian side where hundreds of people had gathered since the afternoon to greet him on his return. He was captured on Wednesday after his MiG-21 aircraft was downed in a dogfight over the Line of Control in Kashmir. “Wing Commander Abhinandan has just been handed over to us. He will be taken now for a detailed medical checkup. This checkup is mandatory as he had to eject from an airplane which would have put his entire body under stress,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor in a brief statement to reporters before a fleet of vehicles left the border crossing for Amritsar, from where Varthaman was set to be flown to New Delhi.
The release of the 38-year-old Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot was announced by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday in a “gesture of peace”.
This was seen as the first sign of a de-escalation after Islamabad retaliated on Wednesday to an Indian “non-military preemptive action” against a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror camp deep inside Pakistan.
Varthaman had been expected to be repatriated by evening, but his release was delayed by the Pakistani side, which did not offer an explanation, according to Indian officials.
“We had hoped he would have been handed over sooner but it was delayed for some reason by the Pakistanis. At this point, we are happy to have him back,” Amritsar district collector Shivdular Singh Dhillon said.He added that Varthaman said “it is good to be back in my country” when he stepped onto Indian soil.
His release coincided with a heavily edited propaganda video that was released to Pakistani TV channels. The video showed the Wing Commander making certain comments, the circumstances of which were not immediately clear. Social media users criticised Pakistan for the video, with some saying it cast doubt over Pakistan’s claims of the release being a peace gesture.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the IAF pilot’s return. “Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan! The nation is proud of your exemplary courage. Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians. Vande Mataram!” he wrote in a tweet.
Opposition leader and Congress president Rahul Gandhi, too, welcomed Varthaman. “Wing Cdr. Abhinandan, your dignity, poise and bravery made us all proud. Welcome back and much love,” he said in a tweet, his first since Wednesday when he had last tweeted about the IAF pilot’s capture.
According to defence officials who asked not to be named, the Wing Commander was set to be flown to the Palam airbase near New Delhi in a special flight and then likely to be taken to the Army’s Research and Referral Hospital for a thorough medical examination. If his condition permits, he will then proceed to a debriefing session with senior air force officials. In between, he will get a chance to meet his family, who had earlier on Friday flown from their hometown, Chennai, to the national capital.
IAF jets on Tuesday bombed a training camp run by JeM, 12 days after the outfit claimed responsibility for a car bombing that killed 40 troopers in Kashmir’s Pulwama. On Wednesday, a fleet of Pakistani combat aircraft entered Indian territory and dropped explosives before being engaged by Indian fighter jets, including the MiG-21 flown by Wing Commander Varthaman.
According to officials who asked not to be named, the Wing Commander engaged an F-16 of the Pakistani Air Force (a jet far superior to his) and shot it down before being downed by Pakistani firing. He was captured in PoK after ejecting from his aircraft.
Shortly after Khan’s announcement of the pilot’s release on Thursday, top generals of the Indian military issued new details of the Pakistani operation on Wednesday, saying they had evidence that the targets were military installations in Kashmir. Indian and Pakistani forces are in a state of alert and both have warned of a strong retaliation if the other launches any operation. World powers have urged both to exercise restraint