Pakistan releases Indian pilot in bid to defuse tensions
Pakistani officials brought a captured Indian pilot to a border crossing with India for handover yesterday, a "gesture of peace" promised by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan amid a dramatic escalation over the disputed region of Kashmir.
The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken in a convoy that set out from the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the border crossing at Wagah, escorted by military vehicles with soldiers, their weapons drawn.
The Pakistani military has said his plane was downed on the Pakistani-held side of Kashmir on Wednesday.
On the Indian side of the border, turbaned Indian policemen were lined up along the road as a group of cheering residents from the area waved India's national flag and held up a huge garland of flowers to welcome the pilot back.
The expected 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 faced 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 a February 14 suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian troops.
Pakistan retaliated, shooting down two Indian aircraft on Wednesday and capturing the pilot.
Since the escalation, world leaders have scrambled to head off an all-out war on the Asian subcontinent.
Mr Khan, the Pakistani premier, told politicians: "We are releasing the Indian pilot as a goodwill gesture tomorrow."
But India made it clear that the latest escalation had changed its strategy and that going forward, it would strike, including inside Pakistan, if it received information of an attack in the planning.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned: "India's enemies are conspiring to create instability in the country through terror attacks."
Yesterday, Pakistan's civil aviation authority partially re-opened the country's airspace, allowing travel to four major cities, another sign tensions with India were de-escalating.
The agency issued a statement saying all domestic and international flights would be allowed to and from the cities of Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta.
It said other airports, including the one located in the eastern city of Lahore that borders India, would remain closed until Monday.
Islamabad closed its air space on Wednesday after saying that Pakistan's military had shot down the two Indian military planes and captured the Indian pilot.
Residents of the Pakistani border town of Chikhoti reported heavy shelling on Thursday night and Friday morning.
More than 200 people had fled to a military organised camp about 20km away from the border.
Police in the Indian-controlled Kashmir said one man was wounded and at least two civilian homes were damaged in the cross-border shelling.
Kashmir has been divided but claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan since almost immediately after the two countries' creation in 1947.
They have fought three wars, two directly over the disputed region.