Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who spent nearly 60 hours in Pakistani captivity, in his first words said that he was “happy to be back” after he crossed over to the Indian side of the Wagah border late on Friday.
Following a prolonged delay at the Attari-Wagah border, Vardhaman crossed over into India after he was captured by Pakistan on February 27 as his MiG-21 Bison fighter jet was hit by Pakistan Air Force jets near the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.
The delay in the release of the IAF officer came despite Khan’s assurance that the he will be back in India by afternoon.
According to government sources, the delay was because the IAF pilot was made to record a video statement by Pakistani authorities before he was allowed to cross the border. It was not clear whether he was made to record the video under duress.
However, Pakistani sources claimed that the delay was caused due to documentation and other formalities before the handover.
The pilot emerged at 9.10 p.m (IST) at the Wagah checkpost on the Pakistani side, accompanied by Pakistani rangers, the Indian air attache posted in the High Commission in Islamabad. He was wearing a civilian clothes — a dark jacket and khakhi trousers, walking proudly toward the gates that separated his captors’ country from his homeland.
Amritsar’s Deputy Commissioner Shiv Dular Singh Dhillon told reporters that the fighter pilot was happy to be back in his country.
Asked what Abhinandan told officials upon his return, the DC said he first smiled and remarked, “I am happy to be back to my country”.
Giving further details, the DC said, “The Pakistan authorities brought Wing Commander Abhinandan to the Joint Check Post at Attari and he crossed over the Zero Line at around 9:21 p.m (IST). After going through some formalities at the Wagah-Attari border, he was handed over to the BSF authorities. Later, the IAF authorities took him with them.” An official was seen putting his arms around the pilot while receiving him.
The Wing Commander was then driven away from the Attari border towards Amritsar in an Air Force vehicle which was escorted by Punjab police.
Hoping to give a hero’s welcome to Wing Commander Varthaman, thousands of people had gathered on the border carrying the tricolour and garlands since morning.
The media and the public were isolated from around the place of handover, and multiple security levels involving personnel from police, BSF and Indian Army were put in place to ensure that the protocols are followed. Beating retreat and flag-lowering ceremony at Attari-Wagah border was cancelled in the light of the development.
Varthaman was flown to Delhi and will undergo debriefing Saturday which will include his physiological as well as a physical check-up in the presence of officials from the military and Intelligence agencies.
The Wing Commander returned to India a day after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the IAF pilot will be released as a “peace gesture” amid heightened tensions between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.