Pakistan hands over captured Indian pilot in ‘goodwill gesture’

China welcomed Pakistan’s decision to “express kindness” and hand over a captured Indian pilot after four straight days of cross-border attacks in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Indian residents dance and shout slogans at a central market in New Delhi (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)
Indian residents dance and shout slogans at a central market in New Delhi (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said yesterday that “the alleviation of tensions between the two countries serves their fundamental interests”.

Pakistan said it shot down two Indian warplanes and captured a pilot on Wednesday.

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A close Pakistani ally, China has blocked India’s attempts to have the UN list as a terrorist the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based group that claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing on Indian troops earlier in February in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

In 2017, however, China joined several nations in declaring Jaish-e-Mohammad and another group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, as terrorist organisations. Pakistani officials brought the pilot captured from a downed plane to a border crossing with India for handover yesterday, a “gesture of peace” promised by Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan amid a dramatic escalation with the country’s archrival over Kashmir.

The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken in a convoy from the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the border crossing at Wagah earlier in the day, escorted by military vehicles with soldiers, their weapons drawn.

On the Indian side of the border, turbaned Indian policemen were lined up along the road as a group of cheering Indian residents from the area waved India’s national flag and held up a huge garland of flowers to welcome him back.

The handover comes against the backdrop of blistering cross-border attacks across the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir that continued for a fourth straight day, even as the two nuclear-armed neighbours sought to defuse their most serious confrontation in two decades.

Tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers face off along the Kashmir boundary known as the Line of Control, in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

Tensions have been running high since Indian aircraft crossed into Pakistan on Tuesday carrying out what India called a pre-emptive strike against militants blamed for the suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir on 14 February that killed 40 Indian troops. Pakistan retaliated, shooting down two Indian aircraft on Wednesday and capturing a pilot.

Khantold MPs on Thursday, “We are releasing the Indian pilot as a goodwill gesture.”