India wanted to bring back captured Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistan by a special flight, but was denied permission. Pakistan has said the pilot, captured on Wednesday by its army after an air encounter, will be released through the Wagah border.
An elaborate flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah crossing between Indian and Pakistani soldiers, which draws thousands of spectators on both sides, has been cancelled.
Pakistan communicated to India late on Thursday night that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be handed over through the Wagah-Attari border, said the Press Trust of India.
There were two options for his return – by road through the Wagah crossing in Amritsar or on a flight from Islamabad. India, say sources, did not want Abhinandan Varthaman to return to media and crowd frenzy at Wagah.
After the pilot’s release was announced by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan yesterday, India had asked for permission to send a special IAF aircraft to bring him back and had even handed over a list of officers who would accompany the pilot.
Sources say India wanted to bring him straight back to Delhi and whisk him away for a debriefing and medical check-up, given that the 35-year-old pilot was wounded during his capture and interrogated.
But Abhinandan Varthaman looked set to walk across in the presence of a huge crowd building since morning. People shouted slogans of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, beat drums carrying Indian flags and sang patriotic songs, while some carried garlands in the hope of meeting the pilot. Two IAF teams also waited.
The pilot has attained hero status and hashtags like #WelcomeBackAbhi have been trending on social media for two days.
Abhinandan Varthaman’s release marked a thaw after India and Pakistan engaged in an aerial encounter on Wednesday for the first time in nearly 50 years.
The confrontation erupted over the suicide bombing in Kashmir, in which 40 soldiers were killed on February 14.
On Tuesday, India sent its warplanes to strike a terror camp in Pakistan. Pakistan responded by sending 24 fighters across the Line of Control, which were chased back by Indian jets.
Abhinandan Varthaman’s MiG-21 fighter fell and he ejected during a dogfight to repel the Pakistani attack.
In 1999, Air Force pilot K Nachiketa was released by road to the Red Cross after eight days in Pakistani captivity, during which he was assaulted and interrogated.