Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was under Pakistan’s custody, walked over into India through the Attari-Wagah border on Friday night. The pilot walked onto the India side around 9.20 pm.
Varthaman was captured when the MiG-21 jet he was flying was brought down by Pakistani aircraft inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on Wednesday. The aircraft was taken down during a dogfight between Indian and Pakistani planes, the first such aerial skirmish since 1971. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had on Thursday said the pilot would be released as a “goodwill gesture”.
Varthaman was accompanied by Indian Air Force Group Captain Joy Thomas Kurien, defence attache to Indian High Commission in Pakistan. “Good to be back,” Varthaman told officials after crossing over at Attari check post, according to the Hindustan Times.
“Wing Commander Abhinandan has just been handed over to us,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor. “He will be taken now for a detailed medical checkup. This check up is mandatory as he had to eject from an airplane which would have put his entire body under stress.”
Varthaman was taken in a convoy from Lahore to Wagah earlier on Friday. He was handed over to Indian High Commission officials at the Wagah border, reported IANS. Pakistan had changed the timing of Varthaman’s handover twice on Friday, according to ANI.
‘Poorly-edited propaganda video’
A few minutes before Varthaman was released, state-run Radio Pakistan tweeted a video of Varthaman, in which he was shown saying, among other things, that he was “looking for a target” when Pakistan Air Force jets brought his plane down, that Pakistan army was “very professional” and that Indian media exaggerate and spice things up to inflame the public sentiments.
“Outside the desi media bubble, videos of captives made by captors do not count and are a violation of the Geneva Convention,” tweeted Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and former Pakistan ambassador to the United States.
“Whoever came up with the idea of releasing that heavily edited video was not thinking straight,” tweeted journalist Umer Ali. “It is destined to be received with nothing but suspicion by everyone but the Pakistani media.”
As the backlash against the video grew, other tweets emerged, claiming that Pakistan’s government had “finally been embarrassed into deleting that poorly-edited propaganda video... from its official Twitter account.”.
The Radio Pakistan tweet with the video, however, had not been deleted at the time of last updating this story.
Varthaman underwent a medical check up at Wagah border, according to Pakistani daily Dawn. Security was intensified at the Attari border on the Indian side ahead of Varthaman’s release, according to NDTV.
‘Nation is proud of your exemplary courage’: Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Varthaman and said the pilot was an inspiration to many. “Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan! The nation is proud of your exemplary courage,” the prime minister tweeted. “Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians. Vande Mataram!”
Soon after the pilot’s return, Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman tweeted “Jai Hind”.
Hours before Varthaman’s release, Modi had lauded him at a rally in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari: “Every Indian is proud that the brave Wing Commander Abhinandan is from Tamil Nadu.”
Congress President Rahul Gandhi said, “Wing Cdr. Abhinandan, your dignity, poise and bravery made us all proud. Welcome back and much love.”
“The hero finally walks back. A grateful nation salutes Wing Commander Abhinandan. You are an inspiration for all of us,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said.
Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah said the country was proud of Abhinandan’s courage. “India is glad to have you back. May you continue to serve the nation and IAF with unparalleled passion and dedication,” he tweeted.
On Thursday, Indian government officials had said they would not seek consular access to the IAF pilot and reiterated there would be “no deal” with Pakistan.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Thursday expressed his wish to receive Varthaman at the Attari border, but later said he would not do so, citing protocol. He also said he had not received a response from the Centre.
Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh said he was happy Pakistan was releasing Varthaman, but said the neighbouring country needs to do a “lot more” to fight terrorism, PTI reported.
Earlier in the day, the Islamabad High Court rejected a plea challenging Pakistan’s decision to release the pilot. The petitioner had alleged that the pilot had committed a crime against the country and should face trial in Pakistan.
India had informed Islamabad on Thursday that it wanted the pilot to be sent back via an aerial route and not through the land border at Wagah, PTI quoted officials as saying. However, Pakistan turned down the request and told India that Abhinandan will be sent back via the Attari-Wagah border, located 25 km from Lahore in Pakistan.
Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Shiv Dular Singh Dhillon said the Retreat ceremony, held at the Attari-Wagah border every day, would not be held in view of his crossover. A senior official of the Border Security Force told PTI that the public will not be allowed in the ceremony area.
The BSF conducts the ceremony in coordination with the Pakistan Rangers and it involves lowering of the flags of the two countries at the border each evening.
China welcomed its ally Pakistan’s move to free Varthaman, saying Beijing had earlier called upon the two sides to exercise restraint and take measures to ease tensions. The United Nations also expressed similar sentiments on Thursday.