Pakistan PM Imran Khan frees captured Indian pilot downed in Kashmir as a ‘peace gesture’

Tensions were diffused this week after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to release the Indian pilot who was shot down in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir as a “peace gesture” to defuse an escalating confrontation between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

A February 14 suicide bombing, claimed by Pakistan-based militant organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary officers. India responded to the suicide blast with an air strike on a JeM training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, the first such raid since the two nations’ 1971 war over territory that later became Bangladesh.

The situation escalated Wednesday when Pakistan claimed it shot down two Indian aircrafts. One of the aircrafts fell into Indian-controlled territory while the other crashed onto the Pakistani side, where the pilot was captured. Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said Pakistan instigated the clash when its air force attacked Indian military installations. India lost one warplane in the exchange and declared a pilot missing in action, he said.

Credit: South China Morning Post

PM Khan warned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that sending Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman home should not be viewed as a sign of weakness. “We have captured a pilot of India. As a gesture of peace we are going to release him to India tomorrow,” Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an address to both houses of Parliament, “I did try yesterday to talk to [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi only to de-escalate this situation. But this de-escalation effort should not be considered as weakness. The region will prosper if there is peace and stability. It is good for both sides.” Mainstream news media managed to twist these words into a declaration that Pakistan was threatening nuclear war with India.

Top Indian military chiefs said the army remained on a “heightened” state of alert despite Pakistan’s promise. The military officials also unveiled fragments from a missile they said matched the Pakistani F-16 fighter jet that crossed into Indian airspace and was shot down. Mr. Varthaman, the pilot of that jet, managed to eject but was apprehended by Pakistani troops on the other side of the border and taken into custody.

Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to “stand as a wall” over Pakistan’s capture of their pilot. In a message to Bharatiya Janata Party members, he accused Pakistan of trying to destabilise India, saying, “The enemy tries to destabilise us, carries out terror attacks. Their motive is to stop our growth.