Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was captured by Pakistan on 27 February, crossed over into India after a prolonged delay at the Attari-Wagah border late on Friday evening.
He 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.
The delay in the release of the IAF officer came despite Khan’s assurance that the he will be back in India by afternoon.
Senior officials from the IAF and the BSF were present to receive the fighter pilot. Pakistani military officials brought the Wg Cdr in a heavily-guarded military convoy to the Attari-Wagah border for the official handover.
Wg Cdr Abhinandan was accompanied by Group Captain Joy Thomas Kurien, Defence Attaché to Indian High Commission in Pakistan.
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 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.
The Wg Cdr was taken to the Integrated Check Post immediately after the handover and was then driven away from Wagah to the Amritsar base camp in a massive military convoy under heavy security. He will be debriefed and medically assessed before being flown to New Delhi.
The IAF pilot’s parents, Air Marshal S Varthaman (Retired) and mother Shobha Varthaman, who is a doctor, arrived in New Delhi from Chennai yesterday. Wg Cdr Varthaman is the second IAF fighter pilot after Group Captain (then Flight Lieutenant) Kambampati Nachiketa to have been released by Pakistan.
A large number of people had assembled at the Attari Joint Check Post (JCP), around 30 km from Amritsar, since 6 am on Friday to receive the hero pilot. Their numbers swelled by 9 am. None of them, however, could catch a glimpse of the pilot.
Many of them said that they came to welcome the hero who displayed exemplary gallantry in the air as well as in Pakistani custody.
On 27 February, Wednesday, the 35-year-old IAF pilot flew a MiG-21 Bison fighter jet to intercept Pakistani F-16s which violated Indian airspace to unsuccessfully target Indian military installations in Kashmir.
Reports say that he took down an F-16 with his MiG-21 Bison. But his fighter jet was shot down by another PAF fighter in the aerial engagement. Wg Cdr Varthaman ejected but fell on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC) where he was captured by the Pakistani Army.
The PAF tried to attack Indian military installations a day after the IAF bombed the biggest terrorist camp belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in Pakistan’s Balakot.
On Thursday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the release of Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman as part of what he called a “peace gesture” to help deescalate tensions between India and Pakistan that started after a terrorist from Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) rammed a car full of explosives into a CRPF convoy on 14 February killing 40 personnel.
“In our desire for 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,” Pak PM Imran Khan said in the country’s parliament.
The announcement came on the day when Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told a Pakistani news channel that Imran Khan is ready for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over phone and offer peace.
Late on Thursday India presented evidence which proved that Pakistani Air Force (PAF) F-16 fighter jets attempted to target Indian military installations on 27 February.
At a joint press conference held at the lawns of the Defence Ministry by the Army, Navy and Air Force in New Delhi, pieces of an F-16 AMRAAM air-to-air missile was displayed before the media as the evidence that nailed Pakistan’s lie that they did not use an F-16 to target India.
“Pakistan claimed they did not use F-16. There are enough evidences through electronic signature that F-16 was used. Parts of AMRAAM air-to-air missile, which is carried only by PAF F-16, was recovered east of Rajouri within the Indian territory,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor.
“As far as IAF is concerned, we are happy that our pilot is being released. We are extremely happy to have him back. Once he is handed over to us we then make any further comment,” he said, pointing that the forces see it as a “gesture in consonance with Geneva conventions” and not as a “goodwill gesture” as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said.
While Pakistan called it a “peace gesture”, New Delhi had already demanded the pilot’s release under the Geneva Conventions.
India had on Wednesday summoned the Pakistani envoy and handed over a demarche demanding the “immediate and safe return” of the pilot. It had also strongly objected to Pakistan’s “vulgar display” of the pilot and said Pakistan “would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to him”.
Government sources had said that India sought the immediate release of the IAF pilot.
Armed forces have been on an operational high alert along the borders across the country. Troops have been put in the highest standby mode where they can retaliate within no time.
The BSF, Punjab Police and other security agencies stationed additional personnel since early Friday morning.
According to reports, India had conveyed to Pakistan that it wants Abhinandan to be sent back via aerial route and not through the Wagah land border. However, the request was rejected with Islamabad maintaining that he would be returned through the Attari-Wagah border. The government was mulling to send a special aircraft to bring back the captured pilot.