Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is expected to return to India on Friday via the Wagah Border after Pakistan Prime Minister’s sudden announcement of his release as a “gesture of peace” in an address to the country’s parliament on Thursday.
The IAF pilot was taken into custody by Pakistan on Wednesday after he landed on the other side of the Line of Control as his aircraft crashed during an aerial dogfight between India and Pakistan.
"In our desire of peace, I announce that tomorrow, and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody," Khan said on Thursday as Pakistani parliamentarians stamped their feet in approval.
Aerial combat between Indian and Pakistani fighter planes Wednesday had caused global concern, with several world leaders urging both countries to take a step back and deter the possibility of an escalation.
The central government had demanded the safe and immediate return of the pilot in a statement, and made it clear that it was not seeking consular access to him.
"We are happy that our pilot who had fallen across the Line of Control and was in the custody of Pakistan is being released. We are extremely happy to have him back. We only see it as a gesture which is in consonance with the Geneva Conventions," Air Vice Marshal R G K Kapoor, the assistant chief of Air Staff, told a news conference.
Government sources said a team of Indian Air Force officials will receive Wing Commander Abhinandan at the Wagah border on Friday evening. The parents of the Wing Commander had arrived in Delhi on Thursday night and will go to Amritsar to welcome him. Abhinandan is the son of Air Marshal (Retd) Varthaman.
Citing official sources, news agency IANS reported that the Border Security Force (BSF) has not been told 'the exact time and sequence regarding the release of the captured IAF pilot'.
"The pilot is likely to be brought by Pakistani authorities from Rawalpindi to Lahore and handed over first to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) under rules of the Geneva Convention before being brought to the JCP between 12 noon and 2 p.m. to return home. He will be debriefed by defence and security officials after his return," IANS reported citing sources.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not make any direct reference to Abhinandan's release, addressing a gathering at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi, he said that a 'pilot project has been completed'. His remarks were received with thunderous applause from the audience.
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has offered to receive Wing Commander Varthaman at the border.
The Congress leader tweeted his request to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "Dear @narendramodi ji, I'm touring the border areas of Punjab & I'm presently in Amritsar. Came to know that @pid gov has decided to release #AbhinandanVartaman from Wagha. It will be an honour for me to go and receive him, as he and his father are alumnus of the NDA as I am," he wrote.
Several countries like UK, France and Australia also urged restraint and built up pressure on Pakistan to de-escalate tensions, and welcomed Pakistan’s move to release the IAF pilot.
“We welcome Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's commitment that Pakistan will release on Friday the Indian pilot held in its custody,” a US State Department spokesperson said while responding to a question on the announcement made by Khan in the Pakistani parliament.
Hostilities between the neighbours had peaked on Wednesday, with aerial combat between Indian and Pakistani warplanes for the first time in 48 years. Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured after the aerial battle.
A day before, India had sent fighter jets to Pakistan and struck the biggest training camp of the terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which was behind the suicide attack on February 14 in Kashmir's Pulwama, in which over 40 CRPF personnel were killed.