Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday announced that Islamabad will release the Indian Air Force pilot in its custody on Friday, Dawn reported. “As a peace gesture, we are releasing Wing Commander Abhinandan [Varthaman] tomorrow,” Khan said. The pilot’s MiG 21 fighter jet was shot down on Wednesday after both countries engaged in aerial skirmishes.
Khan made the announcement before addressing a joint session of Pakistan’s Parliament to discuss the increasing tension between India and Pakistan since the Pulwama attack, where 40 CRPF personnel died.
The Pakistani PM claimed he had tried to talk to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday evening because an escalation of hostilities will benefit neither country. “The only purpose of our strike was to demonstrate our capability and will,” Khan said. “We did not want to inflict any casualty on India as we wanted to act in a responsible manner.”
However, he added that if India proceeded with “aggression”, Pakistan would retaliate, PTI reported. “Pakistan’s desire for de-escalation should not be construed as its weakness,” Khan said. The prime minister urged the international community to help de-escalate the conflict.
Earlier on Thursday, Indian government sources had said they would not seek consular access to the IAF pilot and reiterated there would be “no deal” with Pakistan.
Reports of both India and Pakistan shooting down each other’s fighter jets emerged on Wednesday, a day after New Delhi said its Air Force had struck a terror camp in Pakistani territory in “preemptive action”. Pakistan Armed Forces spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor had said that Abhinandan was in Pakistan’s custody.
According to an eyewitness quoted in Pakistani daily Dawn, Varthaman tried to swallow key documents after he landed across the Line of Control in Horra’n village in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’s Bhimber district. He was chased by locals before Pakistan Army personnel took him into custody.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi earlier on Thursday said Islamabad was willing to consider returning the pilot if it led to de-escalation of tensions at the border, Geo TV reported. “We are willing to return the captured Indian pilot if it leads to de-escalation and peace,” he had said. “We are ready for all positive engagement.”
Pakistani author Fatima Bhutto, the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and niece of another former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, on Wednesday had called on the Pakistan government to release Varthaman.