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Pakistan will release Indian pilot in ‘peace gesture,’ Khan says

Pakistan will release a captured Indian pilot on Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan told a joint session of parliament, in an overture towards New Delhi after soaring tensions fueled fears of conflict between the nuclear-armed rivals.

“As a peace gesture we are releasing the Indian pilot tomorrow,” Khan said on Thursday, February 28, a day after Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was shot down in a rare aerial engagement between the South Asian neighbors in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Raveesh Kumar, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, said on Wednesday that the Indian Air Force had shot down a Pakistani fighter jet, losing one of its own MiG-21 Bison aircraft in the process.

The Press Trust of India reported that Pakistani fighter planes crossed at Poonch and Nowshera, two locations on the Indian side of the de facto border, but were repelled.

Indian sources confirmed Pakistani fighter jets had violated airspace over Indian Kashmir, but said they were forced back over the Line of Control between Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

The Pakistani foreign office released a statement saying that the air force “undertook strikes” across the border on Wednesday – however it did not elaborate on what it meant by “strikes” and did not initially mention shooting down planes.

Pakistan Armed Forces spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor then said the PAF had shot down two Indian planes, adding that one aircraft had fallen in Pakistani-held Kashmir, while the other crashed on the Indian side.

Ghafoor later said that a pilot was captured and was “being treated as per norms of military ethics,” tweeting a photo of Abhinandan that appeared to show injuries to his face.

A viral video apparently taken shortly after his plane was shot down purportedly showed Abhinandan being dragged and beaten by a group of men as Pakistani soldiers intervened, shouting “Stop! Stop!”

Mohammad Faisal, the Pakistani foreign ministry spokesperson, told reporters Thursday that the pilot had “some mishap before our officers reached there because he was caught by the public.”

But he stressed the pilot was now “with us, he is safe and in good condition.”

A video released by the Pakistani military later showed Abhinandan sipping tea, his face swollen and sporting bruises but otherwise collected and calm.

He thanked the “thorough gentlemen” who rescued him from the mob and complimented the tea as “fantastic.” It was unclear if he had been coerced to speak.

Tensions have dramatically escalated between the nuclear-armed rivals since Indian warplanes flew into Pakistani airspace and struck what New Delhi said was a camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group that claimed the Kashmir bombing.

The incursion over the heavily militarized LoC came a day after Indian warplanes carried out a strike in Pakistan on what New Delhi said was a militant training camp, in retaliation for a February 14 suicide bombing in Kashmir that killed 40 Indian troops.

Islamabad, while denying the Indian strike caused any major damage or casualties, had vowed to retaliate – fueling fears of a dangerous confrontation in South Asia.

With reporting from AFP

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