Pakistan is set to release a captured Indian pilot in a “peace gesture” aimed at easing tensions with its nuclear archrival, after aerial clashes ignited fears of a dangerous conflict in South Asia.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who has become the face of the crisis between Islamabad and New Delhi, will be handed back to Indian officials at the Wagah border crossing on Friday afternoon, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on Friday.
In New Delhi, the announcement of his release by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday was seen as a diplomatic victory, with Indian leaders welcoming the pilot’s return but announcing they would remain on “heightened” military alert.
“We have an Indian pilot. As a peace gesture we will release him tomorrow,” Khan told a joint sitting of parliament in the capital Islamabad on Thursday.
Khan also said he had unsuccessfully tried to make telephone contact with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Wednesday night.
“Yesterday, I tried to call Narendra Modi,” Khan said. “I wanted to make it clear that we do not want any kind of escalation.”
Abhinandan‘s plane was shot down over Kashmir on Wednesday, after a dogfight in the skies over the disputed Himalayan region which sent tensions between India and Pakistan to their highest levels in years and alarmed world powers, who issued calls for restraint.
“As the prime minister has said, as a peace gesture and to de-escalate matters, the Indian pilot will be released. So today, this afternoon, he will be released at Wagah,” Qureshi told a joint session of parliament.
A diplomatic source told AFP news agency, the handover was expected about 3-4pm Pakistani time (1000-1100 GMT). By 1500 GMT, the release hadn’t been announced.
The Wagah crossing gate is famed for hosting an elaborate daily ceremony by Indian and Pakistani soldiers at sunset.
Thousands of people had already gathered on the Indian side early on Friday to welcome the pilot home, an AFP journalist said.
The pilot’s parents travelled to Amritsar, near Wagah, via New Delhi late on Thursday night and were applauded by the fellow passengers on the flight they took, TV footage showed.
Media on both sides were pushed back by authorities about 1 kilometre from the border, sources told Al Jazeera.
“He [the pilot] will be debriefed by not only the secret service, but mainly the air force and there will be no media sound bites from him for the foreseeable future as and when he will come back to Indian soil,” said Al Jazeera’s Sohail Rahman, reporting from the Indian capital, New Delhi.
“That is part of the protocol when you are, in theory, a prisoner of war,” he added.
The surging tensions had prompted Pakistan to close down its airspace, disrupting major routes between Europe and South Asia and grounding thousands of travellers worldwide.
On Friday morning, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced a decision would be taken on re-opening airspace “shortly”.
Earlier, it had said flights would remain grounded until at least 1.00 pm local time (0800 GMT) on Friday.
The latest confrontation between the neighbours, who have fought three wars since independence in 1947, erupted after a suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir killed at least 42 Indian paramilitary troops on February 14, with the attack claimed by Pakistan-based rebel group Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM).
Twelve days later, Indian warplanes launched an air raid inside the Pakistani territory, claiming to have hit a JeM camp.
It was the first such aerial attack since their last war in 1971, before either country had nuclear weapons.
An infuriated Islamabad denied casualties or damage, but a day later launched its own incursion as a show of strength across the Line of Control, the de facto Kashmir border.
That sparked the dogfight that ended in both countries claiming they had shot down each other’s warplanes, and Abhinandan‘s capture.
Residents on either side of the LoC also reported heavy shelling, which continued into the early hours on Friday.
Analysts said the pilot could prove to be Islamabad’s trump card, but Prime Minister Khan unexpectedly announced on Thursday that he would be released a day later 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.
With the pilot attaining hero status and the hashtag #WelcomeBackAbhi swiftly trending on social media, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on his citizens to “stand as a wall” in the face of an enemy that “seeks to destabilise India”.
The last time an Indian pilot was captured by Pakistan, in 1999, the handover was facilitated by the Red Cross (ICRC), which met Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa at the Pakistani foreign office in Islamabad before escorting him to the Indian high commission overnight.
He left for India that same day.
On Friday, a Red Cross spokesman told AFP the aid organisation is “ready to provide any assistance necessary”, but so far “is not involved” in Abhinandan‘s return.
Kashmir is ruled in part but claimed in full by both India and Pakistan. Two of their three wars have been fought over the disputed territory.