Pakistan frees captured Indian pilot

Pakistan has freed an Indian fighter pilot captured after his plane was shot down in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, amid rising tensions.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was handed over to Indian officials near a border crossing with Pakistan.

Minutes earlier, the pilot said on Pakistani TV that he was “very impressed” by the Pakistan army.

On Thursday Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said the pilot’s release was a “peace gesture” to India.

India and Pakistan – both nuclear powers – claim all of Kashmir, but each controls only parts of it.

On Friday Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the events of the past few days had “brought our nation closer”.

“The way the nation has supported our armed forces is extraordinary and I bow to every Indian for that,” he said.

The pilot is being hailed as a hero in India, where crowds have been gathering carrying banners and garlands at the symbolic Wagah border crossing – the only legal crossing between India and Pakistan.

Tensions between the two countries have escalated sharply in the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, India carried out air strikes on what it said was a militant camp in Pakistan in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed at least 40 Indian troops in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14.

A Pakistan-based group said it carried out the attack – the deadliest to take place during a three-decade insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir.

Pakistan – which denies any involvement in the February 14 attack – said it had no choice but to retaliate to the Indian raids with air strikes on Wednesday. That led to a dogfight and the Indian fighter jet being shot down in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from Britain and partition in 1947. All but one were over Kashmir.

Tens of thousands of troops remain positioned on either side of the border in the disputed region.

The aerial attacks across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Indian and Pakistani territory are the first since a war in 1971.

At the height of the tension Pakistan closed its airspace, disrupting major air routes. Partial operations have now resumed at four main airports, with the full resumption of flights expected next week.

“As a peace gesture we are releasing the Indian pilot tomorrow,” Mr Khan told Pakistani lawmakers in the National Assembly on Thursday. –BBC

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