Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, captured by Pakistan after an air encounter between the countries, returned to India after a four-hour delay. Sources say Pakistan changed the time twice.
As security personnel and media crew waited for Wing Commander Abhinandan homecoming after two days in Pakistani captivity, “procedural delays” and “documentation problems” were cited as the reason for the hold-up.
To restrict the crowds, an elaborate flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah crossing between Indian and Pakistani soldiers, which draws thousands of spectators on both sides, was cancelled.
The government wanted to avoid the jostling and media frenzy around the pilot, now for many a symbol of hope and the easing of tension between India and Pakistan just as they were seen to be sliding towards a major confrontation.
Wing Commander Abhinandan, a face known to most households across India by now and a blazing hashtag on social media, was seen on the Pakistani side of the Attari-Wagah crossing around 9.15 pm.
Abhinandan Varthaman spent almost three days in Pakistani captivity after he was shot down. He hit a Pakistani F-16 before he was forced to eject and landed across the Line of Control.
Images of the pilot’s capture and questioning, circulated from Pakistani accounts, left millions of Indians stricken and worried. The 38-year-old was blind-folded, his eyes bleeding over his handlebar moustache and his hands tied behind his back. A video showed him dragged from a pond, surrounded by locals.
The alarming videos were taken off as Pakistan was accused of violating the Geneva Convention.
A video later showed Abhinandan Varthaman sipping tea, his wound looking less severe but eyes still swollen. He calmly answered questions, refusing to speak on his mission while praising his treatment by the Pakistan Army.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement that he would be released helped lower the temperature after rapid escalation this week.
New Delhi had asked for permission to send a special IAF flight to bring back the captured IAF pilot from Islamabad, say sources, but Pakistan rejected the request.
Sources say India wanted to bring him straight back to Delhi and whisk him away for a debriefing and medical check-up.
The decision to return the pilot marked a dramatic shift in mood after the two countries engaged in an aerial clash for the first time in nearly 50 years on Wednesday.
World leaders had urged both countries to step back as hostilities peaked over the past few days as India sent fighter planes to strike a terror training camp in Pakistan and Islamabad tried to target Indian military installations in response.
President Donald Trump told the world media on Wednesday in Hanoi that “reasonably attractive news was coming from India and Pakistan”. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he spent “a good deal of time” on the phone speaking to leaders on both sides.
The confrontation erupted in the days following the February 14 Pulwama attack by Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, in which over 40 soldiers were killed. India’s air strikes on Tuesday targeted a huge Jaish training facility in Pakistan’s Balakot.