ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will release captured Indian air force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman today as a gesture of peace towards New Delhi and a de-escalation effort in favour of regional peace.
The move was announced Thursday by Prime Minister Imran Khan at a joint session of Parliament, a day after Pakistan shot down two Indian aircraft that had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and captured Wing Commander Abhinandan.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi earlier today confirmed Wing Commander Abhinandan will be handed back to Indian officials at the Wagah border crossing on Friday afternoon.
"As the prime minister has said, as a peace gesture and to de-escalate matters, the Indian pilot will be released. So today, this afternoon, he will be released at Wagah," Qureshi told a joint session of parliament Friday.
The Wagah crossing gate is famed for hosting an elaborate daily ceremony by Indian and Pakistani soldiers at sundown. Thousands of people had already gathered on the Indian side early Friday to welcome the pilot home, an AFP journalist said.
According to Indian diplomatic sources, the Indian High Commission has finalised travel documents for the pilot.Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj earlier commented that "India does not wish to see further escalation of the situation". Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to make a public comment.
'De-escalation efforts should not be considered weakness'PM Imran Khan, while addressing the joint session of Parliament, urged India not to escalate the situation as he announced to free the captured Indian pilot. “Don’t take this any further, Pakistan will be forced to retaliate," he warned, noting that the de-escalation efforts made by Pakistan should not be considered as weakness. "Despite us opening the Kartarpur corridor, we received no response from India," he said. "When the Pulwama attack happened, we were blamed within 30 minutes," the premier lamented. "I asked them to share evidence."
"We did not want to inflict any casualty on India as we wanted to act in a responsible manner. […] I had said that if India does something then we will respond."
PM receives praise for decision to release Indian pilot
UN Secretary-General Antonio GuterresUN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed PM Imran's decision to release the captured Indian fighter pilot, in what was seen as an effort to de-escalate the gravest crisis between the two countries in years.
"The report of the release of the Indian pilot by the Pakistani authorities would be very much a welcome step," UN chief's spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said, in response to a question at a regular briefing at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Turkish President ErdoganTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan congratulated PM Imran on his statesman-like offer to India for de-escalating tensions and working towards peace. Appreciating the announcement by the Pakistani premier to release the captured pilot, the Turkish president pointed out that this gesture was "a sign of strength."
Navjot Singh Sidhu
Indian cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu also hailed the move and called it a noble act.
"Imran Khan every noble act makes a way for itself…your goodwill gesture is ‘a cup of joy’ for a billion people, a nation rejoices…I am overjoyed for his parents and loved ones.”
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq
Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq hoped better sense would prevail after PM Imran's peace gesture.
Former chief minister of Indian-occupied Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti also lauded PM Imran, calling the release of the Indian pilot "a great gesture", and hoped the Indian government would reciprocate.