Screen grab of captured Indian fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman (Right) at the Wagah border just before his release on Friday night. Photo: Asia Times

Pakistan finally handed over a recently captured Indian fighter pilot after an inordinate seven-hour delay, allowing him to walk across the Wagah border on Friday night. Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced on the floor of the National Assembly on Thursday that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be released as a “gesture of peace.”

The release of the pilot proved to be a significant de-escalation measure, coming days after Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets crossed into Pakistan and bombed an alleged “terror camp” of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Pakistan retaliated with air strikes on Wednesday morning, bombing some open areas next to Indian military installations along the Line of Control (LoC) on the Indian side. Varthaman’s aircraft was scrambled from Srinagar air force base and engaged the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets before being shot down. The air attacks came in the wake of a terror attack that led to the death of 40 Indian policemen in Pulwama, Indian-administered Kashmir.

He was captured by the Pakistani military soon after being assaulted by some local residents. “I am happy to be back to my country,” he said to Indian officials waiting anxiously before he was whisked away to board a flight to Delhi. He will have to undergo a detailed debrief, IAF officials told Asia Times.

According to Pakistani media reports, Varthaman was confused about his location before being found by the local residents. They chased him for half a kilometer, and he fired a few shots with his service pistol to dissuade them, before jumping into a pond. “He was trying to swallow some documents and drown the rest when the locals caught up with him,” eyewitnesses said. The locals had started beating him up when Pakistan Army soldiers arrived and took him away.

Inordinate delay

Prime Minister Khan announced on Thursday that they were prepared to release Varthaman. But on Friday, even though he was released from Rawalpindi by 10 am, there was an inexplicable delay till he was finally allowed to walk across to India via the Wagah border check post at 9 pm. Escorted by Pakistani rangers and Group Captain JD Kurian, the Indian air attache to Pakistan, Varthaman was made to wait for nearly seven hours in Lahore.

According to sources in the Pakistani government, he was formally handed over to International Committee of the Red Cross staff, who carried out a detailed medical examination. Because Varthaman had ejected from the MiG-21, which has a small parachute, his back had suffered some trauma.

Pakistan also released a heavily edited video, the third produced since he was captured, in which he is heard lauding the Pakistani military, as well as being critical of the Indian media. Analysts say that the video was shot under duress, and this caused a further delay in processing his formal release. “It was felt that the video had to be made because he might change his statement in India,” a senior Pakistan government official told Asia Times. The video was deleted after an hour from the official Twitter handle of the Pakistani government. However, none of this was officially communicated to Indian government officials, leading to several tense hours in New Delhi.

It also turned out that the Pakistani officials insisted on separate documentation since he was given the status of prisoner of war (PoW). Varthaman’s release came after a series of interventions by the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While US National Security Advisor John Bolton spoke to his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman, who had just concluded a trip to South Asia, also spoke to Prime Minister Khan. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi also spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Khan to help resolve the escalating crisis.

Continuing crisis ahead

In an interview with CNN, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi admitted that the founder of JeM, Maulana Masood Azhar, was in Pakistan. India has sought “visible” and “demonstrable” action against him and the militant group and handed over a dossier on their involvement in the Pulwama attack. However, Qureshi insisted that Azhar was extremely ill and confined to his house.

Meanwhile, New Delhi was adamant that it would not negotiate with Islamabad for Varthaman’s release. Prime Minister Modi told a public gathering that there would be further actions taken against Pakistan. This is another indication that India will continue to press for action against what it calls Pakistan-sponsored terror groups operating from its soil.

The US, UK and France have already moved a fresh resolution in the United Nations Security Council to designate Azhar and Jaish-e-Mohammed as international terrorists. However, a similar resolution has been vetoed thrice by China. The other two P-5 members, China and Russia, have until March 13 to decide to support or reject the resolution.

However, Indian diplomacy notched up a significant coup when the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) invited India to be its “guest of honor” for the first time since it was founded. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh had pushed for this status despite protests from Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan, which is a founding member of the OIC, had to skip the meeting once the other members refused to cancel India’s participation. In September this year, Pakistan’s track record will be re-evaluated by the Financial Action Task Force on terror funding. It is already on the “grey list” and India will be lobbying hard to place it on the “blacklist,” which would invite significant economic sanctions.

– With additional reporting by Saikat Datta

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