Update (10:50 am ET): The Pakistani foreign minister says Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian pilot who was shot down and captured earlier this week during the first aerial scuffle between India in Pakistan in nearly half a century, has now been released. Local TV stations in both countries are running footage from the border.
View at India-Pakistan border as captured Indian pilot is released https://t.co/izVp5gPkA7— Reuters World (@ReutersWorld) March 1, 2019
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The international community breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said a captured Indian air force pilot would be released as a "goodwill gesture" to prevent the latest conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors from escalating.
But it's beginning to look like that burst of optimism was premature.
Cross-border clashes erupted along "line of control" that separates Indian-controlled and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Exchanges of conventional weapons fire have been reported in in Bala Kote, Mendhar, Jammu and Kashmir, according to local media reports. The fire comes as Pakistan has reportedly delayed the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who is being hailed as a hero in India after he was shot down Wednesday in the first bout of aerial combat between India and Pakistan in nearly fifty years.
According to one local Pakistani source, the return of the pilot was delayed by Pakistan's military following a disagreement about the timing. Crowds of demonstrators who had amassed on both sides of the border have reportedly started to disperse.
#India wanted #Abhinandan back by 2pm.#Pakistan said they wud return him during #WagahBorder ceremony.#India said no & cancelled their side of ceremony.#Pakistan said, fine. We will delay his departure.#Indian reception party is slowly heading home.— For Pakistan (@ImForPakistan) March 1, 2019
Western media reports published Friday before the delay was revealed credited Varthaman with possibly averting a nuclear crisis.
The description of Varthaman's efforts mirrored something out of an action movie. Here's more on that from the Washington Post:
In a scene that could have been out of a movie, Varthaman parachuted out of his flaming plane and then asked the gathering crowd where he was. Upon finding out he was in Pakistan, he ran backward, firing his pistol in the air to keep back the angry young locals.
When they got too close, he jumped into a pond and destroyed sensitive documents and maps by swallowing some and soaking others before he was captured.
As WaPo pointed out, flying runs in Varthaman's family. His mother and pilot father were welcomed as heroes after traveling to the reception ceremony, as video of their reception showed.
Flying runs in the family: the elder Varthaman, now retired, was a decorated senior officer in the Indian air force who reached the rank of air marshal. In an ironic twist, Simhakutty Varthaman once advised a filmmaker who made a movie about a pilot jailed in Pakistan after being captured in war. In the movie, the hero is ultimately reunited with his family.
After the capture, his father expressed hope for his son’s safe return and said the family was praying that he "does not get tortured." On Thursday night, the pilot’s parents flew to Delhi ahead of their son’s release. As passengers on the flight realized who the couple was, they burst out in applause and cheers.
According to Reuters, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Varthaman would be handed over to Indian authorities later on Friday, though exactly when remains unclear.