Two days after he was captured in Pakistan, Wing Commander Varthaman is back home amid cheers
Two days after his Mig-21 Bison fighter jet was shot down and he was captured in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned to India on Friday night via Attari-Wagah border in Amritsar. His release prompted massive celebration across the country.
The released pilot dressed in khaki trousers and a dark jacket set foot on Indian soil shortly after 9 pm from Pakistan after being handed over to India on other side, where he was accompanied by Indian air attaché and a woman official of Pakistan foreign office. He was whisked away from Attari border to avoid media glare. Hundreds of people had gathered there since morning to have a glimpse of Varthaman.
He will undergo a medical check-up at military hospital and then flown in a special aircraft to New Delhi. He will meet his family, including his wife, a retired IAF officer, and father, Air Marshal S Varthaman (retired) now settled in Chennai. The IAF authorities will then debrief the pilot in New Delhi.
Sources said the debriefing procedure entails getting first person account from the pilot about the sequence of events during his captivity and details of interrogation by the Pakistan Armed forces. Since Varthaman was in custody for a brief period and most probably blindfolded to prevent him from observing the details of the place of his custody, the debriefing will be short, they said.
Reports from Pakistan media indicate that after the IAF pilot was shot down and beaten up by the locals in POK opposite Rajouri sector, he attempted to destroy the documents in his possession by stuffing them in his mouth.
His plane was shot down after Varthaman successfully brought down a F-16 of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) which had intruded into Indian airspace in Rajouri sector on Wednesday at about 10.30 am.
The IAF pilot was part of combat air patrol which had intercepted the Pakistan jets in Narian in Naushera, Rajouri after it tried to target an ammunition point of the Indian Army. The Pakistani jets earlier had dropped bombs at the brigade headquarters of the Army in Rajouri but there was no damage.
During the aerial engagement close to the Line of Control (LoC) between the SU-30 and MIG-21s of the IAF and F-16s of the PAF, Varthaman chased one F-16 and shot it down and it fell in POK. However, his MIG-21 was shot by the air defence of Pakistan and Varthaman ejected before the plane crash and landed in POK where he was captured.
The Pakistani action to attack Indian military installations came a day after the IAF jets destroyed terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s (JeM) biggest training camp near Balakot deep inside Pakistan early on Tuesday.
It came 12 days after the JeM claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a CRPF convoy in Kashmir’s Pulwama, killing 40 soldiers.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced in Parliament there on Thursday about the decision to release the captured pilot as a “peace gesture” and the “first step” to open negotiations with India. “In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow (Friday) and as a first step to open negotiations Pakistan will be returning the IAF officer in our custody.”
The IAF said on Thursday it was happy that Varthaman was returning home but dismissed suggestions it was a goodwill gesture insisting it was in line with Geneva Convention. “We are very happy Abhinandan will be freed tomorrow (Friday) and look forward to his return Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, assistant chief of staff (space) had told a news conference in New Delhi. Asked if the IAF saw it as a goodwill move, Kapoor had said “we see it as a gesture in consonance with the Geneva Convention.”
Justifying the Pakistani aerial strike, Khan had said in Parliament on Thursday, “the only purpose of our strike was to demonstrate our capability and will. We did not want to inflict any casualty on India as we wanted to act in a responsible manner.” Meanwhile, reports in New Delhi suggested that Pakistan turned down a request by India to send back Varthaman by aerial route and not through the Attari-Wagah land border, official sources said Friday.
They said hours after Khan announced the decision to release Varthaman, India conveyed to Islamabad that he be sent back via the aerial route. However, late in the night, Pakistan conveyed to India that the pilot will be returned through the Attari-Wagah border and India’s request could not be heeded to, the sources said. India was also mulling sending a special aircraft to Pakistan, the sources said. Varthaman was finally driven to the border in a Pakistani military vehicle before being handed over to the Indian officials.
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 Varthaman’s release by Pakistan at this frontier, the BSF said.
A senior official of the force said the martial ceremony was called off due to administrative requirements.
Officials said it was estimated that over 20,000 people could gather on the Indian side to welcome IAF pilot and it could be a security nightmare. Hundreds of people had flocked the Attari border since early Friday morning to catch a glimpse of the IAF pilot. Hence, it was decided to call the ceremony off on Friday so that nothing untoward happens.
The Border Security Force (BSF) conducts the ceremony in coordination with their cross-border counterparts Pakistan Rangers. It involves lowering of the flags of the two countries along with foot stomping manoeuvres of the troops.
Saturday, 02 March 2019 | PNS | New Delhi/Attari
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