Pakistan soldiers next to what appears to be the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir near the Line of Control on February 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/STR

Pakistan has said it will release a captured Indian pilot on Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan told a joint session of parliament Thursday in a gesture to calm New Delhi after hightened tensions fuelled fears of conflict between the nuclear-armed rivals.

“As a peace gesture we are releasing the Indian pilot tomorrow,” Khan said, a day after Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was shot down in an aerial dog-fight between the South Asian neighbors over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Meanwhile, earlier on Thursday Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to “stand as a wall” as anger boiled over Pakistan’s capture of the pilot as the crisis escalated. In his first remarks since India and Pakistan both claimed to have shot down each other’s fighter jets near the disputed border in Kashmir, Modi urged his countrymen to unite “as the enemy seeks to destabilize India.”

“In the face of their objective, every Indian should stand as a wall, as a rock,” Modi said. “The entire country is one today and standing with our soldiers. The world is looking at our collective will and we have faith in our forces’ capacity.

“India will live as one. India will work as one. India will grow as one. India will fight as one. India will win as one.”

Modi did not mention Pakistan by name during the address to his Bharatiya Janata Party workers. Anger against the neighbor India had fought three wars with since 1947 remained high.

On Wednesday, Khan had appealed for talks between India and Pakistan while referring to both countries’ nuclear arsenals amid increased hostilities between the two South Asian neighbors.

However, India held the view that Wednesday’s aerial battle between the two countries along the Line of Control was an “aggression against India” by Pakistan.

Urging New Delhi to ‘sit and talk’, Khan said in a televised address on Wednesday: “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculations? If this escalates, things will no longer be in my control or in [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s.”

The Acting High Commissioner of Pakistan was summoned on Wednesday by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) “to lodge a strong protest at the unprovoked act of aggression by Pakistan against India earlier today, including by violation of the Indian air space by Pakistan Air Force and targeting of Indian military posts,” the Ministry’s statement said.

The MEA said it expected the immediate and safe return of Wing Commander Abhinandan, who was arrested by the Pakistan Army after one of India’s aircraft crashed in Pakistan.

India also handed a dossier to Pakistan, which officials said had specific details of Jaish-e-Mohammad’s (JeM) complicity in the terror attack in Kashmir’s Pulwama that killed 40 Indian police personnel on February 14. The dossier is said to also include information about the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan.

According to the MEA, India again asked Pakistan to take immediate and verifiable action against terrorism.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal said the Indian dossier would be reviewed when it reached Islamabad. He added that Pakistan would act if the dossier contained viable evidence.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday the US, UK and France moved a joint proposal at the United Nations Security Council to designate Maulana Masood Azhar as an international terrorist. China had blocked similar proposals three times earlier and once after the Pulwama terror attack.

India also strongly objected to what it described as Pakistan’s “vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention.” The Indian MEA said Pakistan would be “well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defense personnel in its custody.”

After Wednesday’s aerial clash between the two countries when Pakistan’s jets entered Indian airspace, Pakistan claimed it had shot down two Indian aircraft. But India said it has lost only one MIG-21 fighter aircraft. One Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot, identified as Abhinandan Varthaman, had been captured by the Pakistani military, according to reports.

Pakistan’s army also released videos showing him in a bloodied state. Pakistan earlier claimed to have two IAF pilots in custody, but later retracted the statement and said they had only one Indian pilot.

New Delhi also claimed to have shot down a Pakistani jet, which it said crashed on the Pakistan side of the border, but there has been no confirmation of this.

The clash came after jets from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) bombed Indian positions across the Line of Control (LoC) in Indian-administered Kashmir in the early hours of Wednesday. The raid was in retaliation for similar raids by IAF on Tuesday, when India claimed to have destroyed a major JeM camp in Balakot. However, Pakistan said there was no damage to property or any casualties.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday chaired a security meeting and gave the navy, air force and army a free hand to take any future course of action, according to reports.

In his speech on Wednesday, Khan said Pakistan’s intrusion into Indian airspace was to show the nation’s military capability after the Indian air strike in its territory. He added that Pakistan did not want to cause any casualties as it had suffered none and dismissed New Delhi’s claim that the IAF airstrike had killed a ‘large number’ of JeM terrorists, senior commanders and jihadis.

Saying Pakistan offered peace to India after the Pulwama attack, Khan said: “We offered India that we would cooperate. It is not in Pakistan’s interest to let our land be used for terrorism. There is no dispute there. Yet, I had still feared that India would still take action, and I had, therefore, warned India against aggression and said we will be compelled to respond because no sovereign country can allow that [violation of its sovereignty].”

The situation remained tense along the India-Pakistan de facto border known as the Line of Control. India claimed Pakistan violated a ceasefire on Thursday morning along the LoC in Poonch, a district in Indian-administered Kashmir. Indian forces retaliated and both sides exchanged fire.

Calls for restraint

The international community, including superpowers the US and China, have called for restraint from both sides. UN chief Antonio Guterres appealed to the governments of both nations to exercise “maximum restraint” to ensure the situation did not deteriorate further.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday that he had spoken separately with the foreign ministers of both the countries and asked them to “prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity.”

Pakistan’s envoy to the US, Asad Majeed Khan, said Islamabad would like to see the Trump administration play a more active role in helping de-escalate the situation. He also said the US’ lack of condemnation of India’s strike on Pakistan was “construed and understood as an endorsement of the Indian position, and that is what emboldened them even more.”

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, spoke to Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi by phone and expressed “deep concern,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday. Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono said: “Japan strongly urges India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and stabilize the situation through dialogue,” ANI reported.

Cautionary steps

Pakistan had shut its airspace, forcing commercial airlines to reroute or cancel flights. New Delhi also shut its air space on Wednesday, but later opened it. Delhi’s metro was also put on a ‘red alert’ on Wednesday after 6 pm IST.

The Sindh government in Pakistan on Wednesday night formally set up the provincial control room in accordance with “the provision of War Book,” Geo News reported. The control room has “been operationalized for the purpose of preparedness, monitoring, reporting, taking preventive measures and issuing real-time instructions regarding any untoward emergency situation.”

Meanwhile, the Samjhauta Express train service between Pakistan and India was suspended until further notice.

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