'Good to be back': IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman after release from Pak custody
New Delhi, Mar 01: After a suspenseful wait lasting hours, IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan, who was captured by Pakistan in an aerial combat, finally returned home from captivity in Pakistan Friday, a major step towards defusing a near-war situation triggered by India's retaliation over Pakistan's continued support for terrorism.
Hoping to give a hero's welcome to Wing Commander Varthaman, thousands of Indians gathered on the border carrying the tricolour and garlands since morning.
But as the day wore on and night fell there was no sign of the pilot, who was captured on February 27 by Pakistan following a dogfight between the two air forces in which his MIG-21 was shot down. He finally emerged at 9.10 p.m.
India time at the Wagah checkpost on the Pakistani side, accompanied by Pakistani rangers, the Indian air attache posted in the High Commission in Islamabad. He was wearing a civilian clothes -- a dark jacket and khakhi trousers, walking proudly toward the gates that separated his captors' country from his homeland.
Hours after Pakistan announced its decision to release Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, India conveyed to Islamabad that it wants him to be sent back via aerial route and not through the Wagah land border. However, late on Thursday night, Pakistan communicated to India that he will be returned through the Attari-Wagah border only.
The Indian defence establishment was also mulling over sending a special aircraft to Pakistan to bring back Wing Commander Varthaman.
Meanwhile, the daily Retreat ceremony held at the Attari-Wagah border front along the India-Pakistan border in Punjab was cancelled for Friday in view of IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman's release by Pakistan at this frontier, the BSF said.
Addressing a public meeting in Kanyakumari, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that "every Indian is proud that the brave Wing Commander Abhinandan is from Tamil Nadu."
The IAF, in a joint briefing with the Indian Army and the Navy on Thursday, 28 February, said that it was happy about Abhinandan Varthaman's return from Pakistan. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced that Pakistan will release captured pilot as a "gesture of peace".
Tensions between India and Pakistan flared up after a suicide bomber killed 40 CRPF personnel in Kashmir on February 14 by Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Amid mounting outrage, Indian Air Force carried out a counter-terror operation, hitting what it said was JeM training camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan on February 26. The next day, Pakistan retaliated with a large air formation, comprising 24 fighter jets, including F-16s.
Varthaman was in one of the eight MIG-21s that took on the invader and shot down an F-16, according to officials. During the dogfight, his plane was hit and he bailed out, landing in PoK, where he was taken into custody by the Pakistani army.
The Pakistan government was under tremendous international pressure to de-escalate the tensions with India and release the captured pilot. As analysts painstakingly debated each nuance of India-Pakistan relations in TV studios, anchors went hoarse keeping up the constant commentary, and journalists looked for information on when and how he would be handed over to India. The government decided to keep it all under wraps. Patriotism was the mood of the day. There was garba in Ahmedabad, dancing in Bangalore, a sand sculpture of the officer in Puri and 'yagnas' in several places.
(with PTI inputs)