Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan — who was captured by Pakistan after his MiG 21 Bison aircraft was shot down by a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jet — was handed over in a gesture of peace to India at the Wagah border late Friday.
He was filmed walking across the Wagah pavilion at around 9pm in civilian clothes.
The pilot was accompanied to the border by the International Committee of the Red Cross, reported the Associated Press. His handover took several hours as a roster of procedures were completed including a medical checkup to verify his health and condition before being handed over to his countrymen.
Abhinandan was arrested on Feb 27 after his aircraft was shot down by the PAF upon violating Pakistani airspace.
New video statement
A new videotaped statement of Wg Cdr Abhinandan was broadcast on national television shortly before his release.
"My name is Wing Commander Abhinandan," he stated for the record in the statement.
"I am a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force. I was in search of the target when your [Pakistan] Air Force shot me down. I had to eject the plane which had sustained damage. As soon as I ejected and when my parachute opened and when I fell down, I had a pistol with me."
"There were many people. I had only one way to save myself: I dropped my pistol and tried to run," he was heard saying in the video.
"People chased me, their emotions were running high. Just then, two Pakistani Army officials came and saved me. Pakistani army captains saved from the people and did not let any harm come to me. They took me to their unit where I was administered first aid and then I was taken to the hospital where I further underwent a medical exam and received more aid," he said.
"The Pakistan Army is a very professional service. I see peace in it. I have spent time with the Pakistan Army [and] I am very impressed."
"Indian media always stretches the truth," he regretted. "The smallest of things are presented in a very incendiary manner and people get misled."
Return a gesture of peace
During the joint session of Parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised his return and extended an olive branch to Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in a move widely praised for attempted to de-escalate soaring tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
"In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow, as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody," the premier had said. The gesture was greeted with near unanimous support in the parliament and has also been welcomed by civil society members in Pakistan and India. Indian media, however, has been spinning the release of Abhinandan as a diplomatic victory for Delhi.
Although the IAF said it was "happy and looks forward to his return", India's armed forces said they would remain on "heightened" military alert at a press conference yesterday evening.
Thousands of Indians gathered at Wagah, waving flags, clutching sweets and garlands, playing drums, brandishing paintings and signs calling for peace, to welcome Wg Cdr Abhinandan. An old man with a white beard banged a drum as groups of young men sang and danced.
A group of schoolchildren brandished a painting of the pilot, along with saffron, white and green Indian flags and placards reading: "Hope for peace between India and Pakistan" and "Thank you Imran Khan".
Media on the Pakistani side were stopped by authorities around 1.5 kilometres from the border.
The pilot's parents were given a standing ovation by fellow passengers as they boarded a flight to Amritsar near Wagah to welcome their son.
Earlier today, Acting Indian High Commissioner Gaurav Ahluwalia visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad to fulfil formalities ahead of the Indian pilot's repatriation. Separately, Indian Air Attaché Group Captain J.T. Krain travelled to Lahore with the pilot's travel documents and will escort him back to India, sources said.
The last time an Indian pilot was captured by Pakistan, in 1999, the Red Cross (ICRC) had met Flight Lieutenant K. Nachiketa at the FO in Islamabad before escorting him to the Indian High Commission overnight. He left for India that same day.
The tensions come at a critical time for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election that must be held by May.
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Modi is expected to benefit from the nationalist pride unleashed by his government's allegation on Tuesday that Indian warplanes had destroyed a major training camp of Jaish-e Mohammad in Pakistan as retaliation for the Feb 14 suicide attack in occupied Kashmir's Pulwama, in which over 40 Indian soldiers were killed.
Following the Indian government's tall claims ─ most of which were reported by an incendiary Indian media citing unnamed sources ─ there were growing calls from opposition parties for more information about just how successful the mission was.
India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had said the alleged strike killed "a very large number" member of militants belonging to Jaish, and another senior government official told reporters that about 300 militants had been killed, but New Delhi has yet to provide evidence to support that assessment.
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In fact, at a press briefing last night, Indian Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor had said that it would be "premature" to say how many casualties had been caused by the alleged strike, and that the IAF had "destroyed whatever it intended to".
The Pakistani government maintained that the Indian planes had missed whatever they were aiming at, and that no one died in the attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Balakot area.
Villagers on the outskirts of Balakot have also told local and international media that one of their neighbours was wounded during the attack, but there were no other casualties and the Indian bombs caused negligible damage.
"We want to know the actual incident as we have not received any details." Amit Shah, the president of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party ─ and one of its most influential figures ─ sought to dispel any doubt.
"People should decide if they trust India's armed forces or not," he said at an event today.
On Thursday, Mamata Banerjee, one of the main leaders of an Indian opposition coalition attempting to unseat Modi, requested more information about the attack.
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"We have the right to know how many people died in the air strike and who were they," she said.