Pakistan will today (FRI) release an Indian airman shot down over Kashmir in what Imran Khan said was a peace gesture to ease tensions in an escalating military crisis with India.
The promise to release Wg Cdr Abhinanda Varthaman followed two days of air strikes and clashes which had raised fears the nuclear-armed neighbours were on the brink of war.
India on Thursday said it welcomed the return of its officer, but said its troops would remain on high alert as the adversaries traded fire across their disputed frontier in Kashmir.
"We have captured a pilot of India. As a gesture of peace we are going to release him to India tomorrow," Mr Khan told the country’s parliament. “But this de-escalation effort should not be considered as weakness."
India had demanded the immediate safe return of Wg Cdr Varthaman after his MiG-21 was shot down, and protested Pakistan’s release of video showing his captivity.
Donald Trump said America had been trying to get the two sides to climb down from their confrontation. "I think hopefully that’s going to be coming to an end," the US president said in Hanoi where he was holding talks with Kim Jong un.
The regional rivals have been brought to their most severe confrontation in nearly two decades after a suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 police of February 14.
India blames the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad and has demanded that Islamabad take action.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged his countrymen on Thursday to “unite, fight, live, work and win as one” against an unnamed enemy “seeking to destabilise India”.
“In the face of their objective [to destabilise], every Indian should stand like a wall against them” he said while talking to more than 10 million of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata (BJP) supporters via a mass video conference.
Pulwama suicide attack – Map
“We have to show the enemy that this nation will neither stop, nor will its development stop” he said, but without naming Pakistan.
Jet fighters from both sides clashed on Wednesday. Pakistan said it had shot down two Indian jets, with one landing inside its territory. India said only one of its jets was missing and it had in turn shot down a Pakistani F-16. That was denied by Pakistan.
The son of a decorated fighter pilot, 36-year old Wg Cdr Varthaman was hailed in India as a hero.
The captured pilot’s father, a former air marshal, was a consultant for a film two years ago about an Indian Air Force pilot whose combat aircraft is downed in Pakistan. The senior retired officer had said he hoped his son “does not get tortured and comes home safe and sound in body and mind”.
Those living close to the disputed line of control dividing Kashmir continued to endure shelling. Habibullah Khan, a 55-year-old in the town of Mendhar just inside Indian territory, said on Thursday shells had landed in wheat fields near his home. Schools and markets had closed as residents were driven indoors.
“Everything is in the hands of God. None dies without the will of the Almighty. But at the same time, we are in the line of fire. We are lucky that shells didn’t land in our house and instead fell in the fields. But I don’t know how long will I and my family survive,” he told the Telegraph.
Haji Munawar Hussain, a resident of Mankote, said Indian and Pakistani troops traded heavy mortar and gunfire with shells landing in a market and near houses as well. “it is a terrible situation here, the 65-year-old said. “The shells are falling everywhere, in the ravines, in the fields and outside the houses. We are terribly scared.”
With additional reporting by Ishfaq Naseem in Srinagar