Indian Air Force fighter pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was freed by Pakistan on Friday, two days after his MiG-21 fighter jet came down in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
“Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman has been handed over to us as per standard operating procedure of the IAF. He is now being taken for a detailed medical checkup,” Air Vice- Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor, Assistant Chief of Air Staff (ACAS) Operations (Space), told reporters at Attari in Amritsar, reading from a text.
He said a medical checkup is mandated, particularly because the officer has had to eject from an aeroplane, which could have put his entire body under great stress. “IAF is happy to have Abhinandan back,” he added.
Wg. Cdr. Varthaman was brought from Islamabad to Wagah by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to Indian High Commission officials after completing the formalities.
From there, he was taken by road to Amritsar by the IAF and flown to Delhi in an IAF aircraft.
Since morning, there was much back and forth on how and where he would be handed over. India had suggested that it would send a plane to pick him from Islamabad.
“IAF Embraer jets were on standby to leave, in case Pakistan accepted it,” one defence official said.
However, Pakistan conveyed that since its air space was closed, it would bring him to the border point by road and hand him over to India there. Accordingly, Wg. Cdr. Varthaman was brought in a Pakistani Army convoy while officials from the Indian High Commission came along close by.
Amid tight security scores of people in jubilant mood, waving the national flag were seen gathered on the Indian side of the border at a distance from the Attari Joint Check Post to welcome the IAF pilot.
In a statement after the release, Pakistan Foreign Office referred to Wg. Cdr. Varthaman as an Indian Prisoner of War and said, “While in captivity, he was treated with dignity and in line with international law.” It further said Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced his return as a goodwill gesture aimed at “de-escalating rising tensions with India.”
On Thursday, in a dramatic gesture , Mr. Khan had announced in parliament that as a “peace gesture, we are releasing the captured Indian pilot tomorrow.”
On Wednesday, IAF fighter jets intercepted Pakistan Air Force jets as they entered Indian air space and attempted to bomb military installations. Wg Cdr Varthaman was in a formation of Mig-21s which intercepted them and engaged in a dog fight with an F-16 in which he shot it and was shot down too and crashed in PoK.
Retreat ceremony closed for public
As a precautionary measure, the daily retreat ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border, conducted by the Border Security Force (BSF) was closed for the public. Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Shiv Dular Singh Dhillon told reporters that beating the retreat ceremony would not be open for public viewing and the decision to this effect was taken by the BSF.
“For all of us here the most important thing right now is return Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to the country, everything else is secondary. Probably, the BSF did not want anything else to interfere in this process and therefore this step was taken,” said Mr. Dhillon.
The BSF conducts the ceremony in coordination with their cross-border counterparts Pakistan Rangers. It involves lowering of the flags of the two countries along with foot stomping manoeuvres of the troops.
Amarinder Singh urges release of 1971 PoWs
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh welcomed the release of Wg Cdr Varthaman and urged Pakistan to admit to, and release, the Prisoners of War (PoWs) still in its captivity from the 1971 war.
In Gurdaspur, talking to journalists the Chief Minister also urged the Indian government to take up the issue with Islamabad.
“I wholeheartedly welcome Abhinandan Varthaman back home. Though I would have loved to go and receive him, I did not do so in view of the existing Defence protocols. Hope to see you soon officer!,” tweeted Capt. Amaridner.
Expressing happiness that talks to further thrash out the modalities for the Kartarpur Corridor were on track despite the tensions, Capt. Amarinder requested the central government to allow 5,000-10,000 pilgrims to cross through every day once the corridor becomes operational.
The Chief Minister, who went around Haruwal village in Gurdaspur district as part of his tour of the border villages and assured the residents that there was no need for panic or fear as the armed forces were fully prepared to deal with the situation.