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Wing Commander to return today

Imran says release a gesture of peace; India asserts it can’t be bargaining chip

A day after India demanded immediate release of an IAF pilot who landed in Pakistan detention on Wednesday following an aerial engagement by air forces of the two countries, Pakistan Prime Minster Imran Khan on Thursday announced that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman will be released on Friday as a gesture of peace and the “first step” to open negotiations with India. The decision comes amid report that the Indian Government reportedly decided that Varthaman cannot be a bargaining chip and New Delhi will not strike any deal with Islamabad for his release. Khan made the announcement during a joint session of Parliament soon after Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Khan is ready to talk to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to de-escalate Indo-Pak tensions. “In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow (Friday), and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody,” Khan said. The announcement was greeted by thumping of desks by Pakistani lawmakers. The Indian Air Force on Thursday said it is very happy that captured pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan is returning home but dismissed suggestions it was a goodwill gesture, insisting it was in line with the Geneva Conventions. “We are very happy Abhinandan will be freed tomorrow and look forward to his return,” Air Vice Marshal R GK Kapoor, assistant chief of Air Staff, told a news conference. Asked if the IAF sees it as a goodwill move, Kapoor said, “We see it as a gesture in consonance with the Geneva Conventions.” The joint session of Pakistan Parliament was held on Thursday to discuss rising tension with India. The Pakistani Air Force on Wednesday carried out a retaliatory strike, a day after Indian struck inside Pakistan, destroying the biggest terrorist training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Addressing the House, Khan said, “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.” He warned if India moved ahead with the “aggression”, Pakistan will be forced to retaliate and urged the Indian leadership not to push for escalation as war is not solution to any problem. Warning that “any miscalculation” from India would result in “disaster”, he said, “Countries are ruined because of miscalculation. War is not a solution. If India takes any action, we will have to retaliate.” Khan, however, said Pakistan’s “desire for de-escalation” should not be misconstrued as its weakness. “Our armed forces are battle-hardened and they are fully prepared to respond to any aggression,” he said. Khan said he “tried to call” the Indian Prime Minister on the phone on Wednesday because “escalation is not in our interests nor in India’s”. The Prime Minister urged the international community to play its role in de-escalation for peace and stability in the region. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale briefed envoys of several countries, including from China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, on the Pakistan Air Force targeting Indian military installations in an aggressive manner, resulting in the escalation of tensions. On US President Donald Trump’s suggesting that the situation between India and Pakistan was de-escalating, the sources said New Delhi has no idea what he was referring to. Pakistan’s efforts to link the release of the pilot with “de-escalation” of tensions with India has not gone down well in New Delhi, they indicated. In Islamabad, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said his Government was willing to consider returning the captured IAF pilot if it leads to “de-escalation” of tensions with India. According to the sources, Khan has to walk the talk on investigating the February 14 Pulwama attack. India, they stressed, wants immediate, credible and verifiable action against terrorists and their proxies. Pakistan has to take concrete steps against JeM, the sources said when asked about Khan’s offer of talks with India. They added that Pakistan was deliberately whipping up war psychosis and trying to mislead the international community on the situation. Asked on talks with Khan, the sources said Pakistan must first take “concrete and specific anti-terror steps”. The sources said India did not share actionable intelligence with Pakistan about involvement of JeM in the Pulwama terror attack and instead targeted its terrorist training camp in Balakot as no result had yielded after actionable intelligence was shared with Islamabad following the Mumbai and Pathankot attacks. Friday, 01 March 2019 | PNS | Islamabad/New Delhi

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