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Pilot shot down by Pakistan returned to India in 'peace gesture'

Abhinandan Varthaman’s plane was shot downed on Wednesday over Kashmir.

Pilot Abhinandan Varthaman this evening.
Pilot Abhinandan Varthaman this evening.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

A PILOT SHOT down in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft has returned to India after being freed in what Islamabad called a “peace gesture” following the biggest standoff between the two countries in years.

Fresh violence raged in Kashmir, however, with 11 people killed in the Indian-administered part of the territory, suggesting that the spike in tensions sparked by the death of 40 Indian soldiers in a suicide bombing last month may not be over.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, whose plane was shot down on Wednesday over Kashmir – divided between the nuclear-armed rivals since 1947 – crossed into India at the Wagah border checkpoint this evening. 

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said he was “treated with dignity and in line with international law”, and that his release was “aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India”.

Thousands of Indians, waving flags, singing and dancing patriotic songs, had gathered at the crossing point this afternoon but the crowd dwindled after his release was delayed inexplicably by hours. 

The parents of Abhinandan were given a standing ovation by fellow passengers as they boarded a flight to Amritsar near Wagah to welcome their son.

In India the pilot’s release was seen as a diplomatic victory, but New Delhi warned that its military remained on “heightened” alert.

‘This is a New India’

Yesterday and today both countries continued to fire barrages across the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border dividing Kashmir, with mortar fire killing four people on the Indian side.

They included three members of the same family – a mother and two children – when a mortar shell pulverised their house in Poonch district today, police said.

Indian troops also laid siege to a house in Handwara district in India’s only Muslim-majority state, believing they had killed two militants inside.

One survived, however. Hours later, when security forces went in to retrieve the bodies the man emerged from debris and opened fire, killing four soldiers before he himself was shot dead. 

“Influence of terrorists and terrorism has been curtailed and it is going to be curtailed even more. This is a new India,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing a tough election due by May, said today.

“This is an India that will return the damage done by terrorists with interest,” he said.

After the pilot’s release he tweeted: “The nation is proud of your exemplary courage… Hail to the motherland!”

India’s junior foreign minister and former army chief, Vijay Kumar Singh, tweeted that the “welcome” release of the pilot was “the first of many steps that Pakistan must take to reinforce their commitment to peace”.

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