Pakistan releases captured Indian pilot

New Delhi terms move as 'a first of many steps' as cross-border shelling rages on along LoC
IAF pilot Abhinandan at Wagah border. Image taken from Dawn/ ANN

Pakistan handed a captured Indian pilot back to his country yesterday as the nuclear-armed neighbours appeared to scale back a confrontation that has prompted world powers to urge restraint.

But fresh violence raged in Kashmir, with seven people killed in the Indian-administered part of the tinder-box territory, suggesting that the crisis may not be over yet.

Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan, stands under armed escort near Pakistan-India border in Wagah before he walked into Indian territory yesterday. Image taken from a PTV video footage. Photo: Reuters

Television footage showed Wing Commander Abhinandan walking across the border near the town of Wagah just before 9.00 pm (1600 GMT). Indian officials confirmed he had been returned and said he would be taken for medical checks.

Abhinandan's MiG-21 jet was shot down by a Pakistani fighter during an aerial clash over the disputed Kashmir region on Wednesday as two weeks of growing tensions between the two countries erupted into open hostilities.

Thousands of Indians, waving flags, singing and dancing with patriotic fervour, had gathered at the crossing point yesterday 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 yesterday both countries continued to fire barrages across the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border dividing Kashmir, leaving at least one person dead.

Gun battles on the Indian side left two militants and four members of the Indian security services dead, while a civilian was killed in later protests, police told AFP.

"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 yesterday.

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

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".

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule. Both claim it in full and have fought two wars over the Himalayan territory.

India has half a million troops in the part it administers, with militants -- backed by Islamabad, according to New Delhi -- fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died since a revolt that broke out in 1989. Last year was the deadliest in a decade with almost 600 killed, monitors say.

Matters escalated alarmingly after a massive suicide bombing killed 40 Indian troops on February 14, with the attack claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group.

Twelve days later Indian warplanes launched a strike inside undisputed Pakistani territory, claiming to have hit a militant camp.

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.

Pakistan 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.

The tensions prompted Pakistan to close down its airspace, disrupting major routes between Europe and South Asia and grounding thousands of travellers worldwide.

Pakistan's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) yesterday said that flights could land and depart from its main airports from 1300 GMT, and that others would be opened "gradually".

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.

His father, a retired air force officer, told the Times of India newspaper, "Just look at the way he talked so bravely... a true soldier... we are proud of him."