- Pakistan on Friday returned captured Indian Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman, who had been held since his plane was shot down on Wednesday.
- Varthaman parachuted to the ground and ate documents, presumably to keep Pakistan from seeing them, witnesses told Reuters and the Pakistani newspaper Dawn.
- Pakistan had shared two videos of Varthaman in custody. In one he was bloodied and blindfolded, and in another he drank tea and praised his captors.
- Varthaman is being described as a hero in India.
Pakistan on Friday returned a captured Indian fighter pilot whose plane had been shot down two days earlier over the contested Kashmir region, near the countries’ northern borders, amid a dramatic clash between regional rivals.
The conflict this week followed a February 14 attack in Kashmir, carried out by a terrorist group based in Pakistan, that killed at least 40 Indian troops.
According to a report from the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman parachuted from his plane, fended off locals by firing warning shots from his pistol, and swallowed sensitive papers to keep them secret.
When Varthaman landed, he asked if he was in India or Pakistan. After he was told he was in Pakistan, he fired a shot into the air as people around picked up stones to throw at him, a witness told Dawn.
The witness said the pilot ran, firing more warning shots behind him, and jumped into a pond. He took out documents and maps, eating some of them and soaking others, presumably to prevent Pakistan from getting them.
The locals restrained the pilot until Pakistani troops arrived, the witness said.
A man named Abdul Majeed told Reuters similar details and said he was among those who had beaten and thrown stones at Varthaman.
“While in the stream, he once again pointed his revolver at us, and fearing that he may shoot directly at us, I threw a stone at him,” Majeed said.
“Some of us did thrash him … because he had given us a tough time,” he added. “But later we handed him over to the army personnel.”
Varthaman returned to India on Friday in what Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called a “peace gesture.”
Footage broadcast on Pakistani state TV showed Varthaman, surrounded by troops, crossing into India, where he is being described as a hero.
Pakistan shared videos of the pilot in custody
Shortly after his capture, Varthaman was shown in a video, posted and later deleted by Pakistan’s information ministry, with a bloodied face and wearing a blindfold – treatment that experts have said could violate international treaties.
In the video, Varthaman gives his name, rank, and service number, calling his captors “sir.”
Pakistan’s military later shared another video of the pilot in which he drinks tea and says Pakistan is treating him well.
"I would like to put this on record & I would not change my statement if I go back to my country. The officers of the Pakistan Army have looked after me very well. They are thorough gentlemen." – Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. pic.twitter.com/ecT2aZrHtv
— PTV World (@WorldPTV) February 27, 2019
“I would like to put this on record, and I would not change my statement if I go back to my country also,” he says in the video. “The officers of the Pakistani army have looked after me very well. They are thorough gentlemen.”
The videos helped Varthaman become the face of the conflict between the two nuclear powers.
Pakistan’s foreign minister told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday that had the conflict escalated into war, it would have been “mutual suicide.” He added that Pakistan wanted “peace and stability in the region.”
Khan had questioned whether the countries could “afford miscalculation” given the devastation that could be caused by their nuclear arsenals.
Reuters reported that India’s air vice marshal said on Thursday that India welcomed Varthaman’s return but did not say when asked by reporters whether India considered it a deescalation.
The US, EU, and China had been among the world leaders urging Pakistan and India to exercise caution, emphasising the importance of peace in the region.
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