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Indian pilot to be released as ‘peace gesture,’ Pakistan’s prime minister says

PAKISTAN-INDIA-KASHMIR-CONFLICT-MILITARY
Pakistani soldiers stand next to what Pakistan says is the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down Wednesday in Kashmir.
(AFP/Getty Images)

A captured Indian air force pilot will be released within a day as a “peace gesture,” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said Thursday.

The move could help end a tense standoff between the neighboring nuclear-armed states that intensified Wednesday after both sides claimed to have shot down warplanes.

The de-escalation appeared to be foreshadowed by President Trump earlier in the day during a news conference held at the end of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.

“We have, I think, reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India,” Trump told reporters.

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Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told reporters Thursday on the flight from Hanoi that the U.S. remained engaged with India and Pakistan, encouraging both sides to de-escalate.

“I am hopeful that we can take down the tensions there at least for the time being so they can begin to have conversations that do not present risk of escalation to either of the two countries,” Pompeo said.

Khan’s announcement, which was delivered to parliament in Islamabad, comes a day after he urged his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to open dialogue between the two sides, warning a miscalculation could lead to war.

Pakistan and India were already in a heightened state of alert. Pakistan temporarily closed its airspace, roiling air traffic between Asia and Europe on Thursday.

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The current round of hostilities between the bitter rivals started Tuesday when Indian warplanes targeted a terrorist camp in Pakistan. The incursion by India is the first of its kind since 1971. The strike was in response to a suicide attack Feb. 14 in the disputed Kashmir region that left 40 Indian paramilitary personnel dead.

Having pledged to retaliate for India’s incursion, Pakistan bombed Indian military installations Wednesday and then claimed to have shot down two Indian warplanes over Kashmir and captured a pilot.

India confirmed the capture but said only one plane had been lost; it also claimed to have downed a Pakistani air force jet.

The captured Indian pilot, Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman, served as a rallying point over the last two days with Indian celebrities lauding him on social media for his bravery while praying for his safe return.

Varthaman, who is reportedly in his 30s, is the son of a retired air force marshal who consulted on the 2017 Tamil-language film “Kaatru Veliyidai.” The plot? An Indian air force pilot is shot down by Pakistan and held captive.

Pakistani villagers who discovered Varthaman said he didn’t know which side of the disputed border he’d parachuted into.

“He was holding a pistol in his hand and asked us whether he was in India or Pakistan,” said Abdul Majeed, a resident of Horra’n, a village about five miles from Indian-controlled territory.

Varthaman realized he was in enemy territory when he shouted “Jai Hind!” (meaning “Victory to India”) and was answered with chants of “Long live Pakistan.”

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The badly injured airman fired his pistol into the air and lunged into a nearby pond, where he began frantically soaking maps and documents stashed in his flight suit and swallowing them one by one.

“I saw him swallow at least four,” said Majeed, 45, who said he eventually subdued Varthaman after a brief scuffle.

“I captured an Indian air force pilot,” Majeed said in a phone interview Thursday. “It is like a dream come true. I have been treated as a hero since yesterday.”

Initial video released out of Pakistan showed villagers pummeling Varthaman. Another clip showed him blindfolded, his face bloodied.

In a third video, the impressively mustachioed pilot sips tea with his captors.

“The tea is fantastic,” said Varthaman, who apologized to his interrogator for declining to disclose where he was from, or to give the model of the plane he flew or the purpose of his mission.

“In adversity, he is maintaining his composure when many of us would maybe break down,” said Mohonto Panging, a former Indian air force pilot who served with Varthaman. “We are trained well for these kinds of situations, but actually facing it and practicing it is different.”

Experts said Varthaman’s release is a mandatory first step toward dialing down tensions. A prolonged captivity would have served to rally hard-liners in both countries.

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“So far, raising the profile of Varthaman has made him a rallying cry for the more jingoistic parts of Indian society,” said Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. “The more he’s used as a pawn by either side, the less chance he has of coming home soon.”

Even if Varthaman is returned Friday, India will need Pakistan to demonstrate it will take meaningful action against terrorists based within its borders, such as the group responsible for the Feb. 14 suicide attack, Jaish-e-Muhammad, experts say.

In lieu of that, the goodwill forged by Varthaman’s release will be short-lived, said Ajey Lele, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

“This release is a good gesture,” Lele said, “and I’m sure India will welcome it, but I don’t think that it will be a sufficient gesture.”

Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondents Sahi from Islamabad and Malhotra from New Delhi.

david.pierson@latimes.com | Follow me @dhpierson


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