Indian students pray for the speedy release of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. Pakistan agreed to release him as a 'gesture of peace.' Photo: AFP

India and Pakistan appeared to have pulled back from the brink after a tense 72 hours and two air strikes when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that a captured Indian pilot would be released as a “gesture of peace.” Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured after his MiG 21 was shot down while he was chasing Pakistani Air Force (PAF) fighters early on February 27.

Varthaman is expected to be released early on March 1 in Rawalpindi. He will travel to Lahore by road and cross into India on foot from the Wagah border. Indian defense sources confirmed that as per protocol, he will be escorted by India’s Air Attache in Pakistan, Group Captain J D Kurian. Pakistan’s foreign minister admitted in an interview to CNN that Maulana Masood Azhar was in Pakistan, but he was “very ill” and unable to “leave the house”.

The PAF raid came a day after the Indian Air Force (IAF) sent its Mirage 2000s 80 kilometers into Pakistan to bomb what Indian officials claimed was a “Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp.” The camp, Indian officials allege, was in Balakot, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This is the first time since the 1971 war that the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors have used air power against each other. The IAF raid came in the wake of a terror attack that killed 40 policemen in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14. India has handed over a dossier of the Jash-e-Mohammed’s role in the Pulwama attack.

Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) was founded by Maulana Masood Azhar, who was released from an Indian prison in exchange for hostages being held on board a hijacked Indian Airlines flight in 1999. Since then JeM has been accused of carrying out terror attacks, including one on India’s Parliament in December 2001. India and Pakistan nearly went to war after the attack, and were locked in an nine-month standoff on the border before demobilizing their forces.

Quick de-escalation

The first indication of a partial rapprochement came when US President Donald Trump announced in Hanoi that India and Pakistan were close to a solution. “There’s reasonably decent news on the India-Pakistan conflict, and hopefully it’s coming to an end,” he said soon after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Top diplomatic sources in New Delhi told Asia Times that the US and Saudi Arabia had reached out to India and Pakistan to cool tempers after their two air raids against each other. Matters had become complicated when an Indian MiG 21 chasing the returning Pakistani F-16s and JF-17s crossed the border. It was immediately shot down and the Indian pilot arrested. The UAE, which was instrumental in extending an “observer” status to India in the Organization of Islamic States (OIC) also threw its weight behind a de-escalation, sources said. “The UAE, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia opposed Pakistan’s request to the OIC that the invitation to India be canceled,” a senior Indian diplomat confirmed.

With France, UK and the US moving a resolution in the UN to declare Maulana Masood Azhar as a “designated international terrorist”, it was clear that none of the P-5 members, including China and Russia, would oppose an early release of the Indian pilot. “The Pakistani air raid had also assuaged prime minister Imran Khan’s domestic audience and he was in a position to make a grand gesture,” another senior Indian security official told Asia Times. Pakistan had also claimed that India was planning missile strikes and a naval blockade off Karachi and Gwadar ports. However, India insisted that these claims were incorrect. With temperatures rising international pressure began to grow for a de-escalation.

“US National Security Adviser John Bolton worked the phones and after a series of discussions with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, managed to broker a deal of sorts,” a top diplomat said. The two had spoken earlier and it is believed that Bolton was supportive of a reprisal action by India in the aftermath of the attack.

But the raid by IAF fighter jets, hitting a target deep inside Pakistan was unexpected and has created a new threshold for bilateral relations between the two traditional allies. “Pakistan’s deep state will have to think very hard before sanctioning another terror attack. If one does take place soon, then all bets are off the table,” a senior Indian security official said. Earlier, Indian intelligence had confirmed that the Pakistan Army had resolved to take action in the wake of special forces raids in the border areas in September 2016.

Indian Air Force officials show a section of an exploded AMRAAM missile, allegedly fired by a Pakistan Air Force F-16. Photo: STR / AFP

However, it had not expected a Pakistani air raid within 24 hours. A MiG 21 that was on combat air patrol immediately challenged the raiding PAF fighters. “They sent in about 20 aircraft, while we activated eight, including MiG-21s, SU-30s and Mirage 2000s,” a senior Indian defense official said. However, with Wing Commander Varthaman likely to be back in India on March 1, tempers had cooled down significantly.

F-16 contract violation

However, the PAF raids have created a fresh twist to the charges being leveled by the two nations. The US supplied the F-16s to Pakistan under a contractual obligation that they cannot be used against India and can only be deployed in counter-insurgency operations.

The IAF’s Air Vice Marshal Ravi Kapoor, who addressed the media on Thursday evening along with his counterparts from the army and navy, claimed that the use of Pakistani F-16s had been confirmed. They produced a part of an AMRAAM missile that had been shot at the Indian MiG 21. Indian officials insist that only the Pakistani F-16s are configured to fire the AMRAAM missiles. “The radar signature of the raiding aircraft also confirms that the F-16s were used,” Kapoor said.

Meanwhile, prime minister Imran Khan said his government is willing to discuss key issues with India once both sides de-escalate. However, Indian and Pakistani forces remain on “high alert.” India insists that Pakistan hand over Maulana Masood Azhar and take “visible” and “demonstrable” action against JeM.

For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this will prove to be crucial as he heads into a general election seeking a fresh term. The Pulwama terror attack proved to be a major embarrassment for him and could erode his political base. Clearly, say observers, the brinkmanship between the traditional rivals is likely to continue till the Indian general elections in April this year.

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