The Indian Air Force officer crosses Wagah border, a day after Pakistan PM Imran Khan announced the ‘peace gesture’.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman crossed the Wagah-Attari border at around 9pm local time (1600 GMT) on Friday, hours later than expected and sporting a black eye from his ordeal.
His release came two days after he was captured following a rare aerial engagement between the nuclear-armed rivals over the disputed region of Kashmir, divided between the two countries since 1947.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced his decision to return Varthaman back to Indian officials as a “peace gesture” during a joint sitting of the parliament in capital, Islamabad.
In a tweet, Khan’s Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, welcomed the pilot home, saying “the nation is proud of his exemplary courage”.
Varthaman had become a national hero after purported footage that went viral showed him being beaten by locals after being shot down before Pakistani soldiers intervened, with social media abuzz with #GivebackAbhinandan and #Abhinandanmyhero hashtags.
His subsequent polite refusal to proffer more details than necessary — “I am sorry major, I am not supposed to tell you this” — won him particular sympathy in India.
The pilot’s parents travelled to Amritsar town near Wagah via Indian capital New Delhi on Thursday night and received a standing ovation by co-passengers as they boarded their flight.
At the famous Wagah border crossing, thousands of Indians, waving flags, singing and dancing with patriotic fervour, had gathered to welcome Varthaman home. But the crowd dwindled after his release was delayed inexplicably by hours.
|People and media gather at Wagah border before the arrival of Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured by Pakistan [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]|
On Wednesday, Pakistani military said it shot downtwo Indian air force fighter jets that entered its airspace in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and took the pilot in custody.
The Pakistani attack came a day after Indian warplanes launched raids inside the Pakistani territory, claiming to have hit a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp.
Tensions between the archrivals escalated after a suicide bombing in India-administered Kashmir on February 14 that killed at least 42 Indian soldiers, the worst such attack in three decades of the conflict.
Al Jazeera’s Sohail Rahman, reporting from New Delhi, said the processing of Varthaman’s return at the Wagah border crossing had gone “according to plan, though the Pakistanis delayed the release of the Wing Commander at least three times during the day”.
“We don’t know why there has been a delay, but it seems that the wing commander … is now on his way home,” said Rahman.
Rahman also said the pilot’s release was unlikely to end the ongoing row between India and Pakistan.
“As far as India is concerned, the situation is still very tense. India-administered Kashmir is still under curfew … there has been an ongoing gun battle in Handwara [in India-administered Kashmir],” he said.
“Regardless of what’s going on with the wing commander and him being transferred back to India, the situation in terms of any semblance of peace and tranquility is certainly far from it.”
|The car transferring Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman is pictured near Wagah border on the outskirts of Amritsar [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]|
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said the situation remained “critical” following Varthaman’s release amid concerns over how to “defuse this escalating crisis”.
“The Pakistani military is on full red alert, they are flying constant air patrols all over Pakistan and although the airspace has been open, the movement of aircraft between India and Pakistan, espescially commercial aircraft is still under restrictions,” said Hyder.
“What we are being told here in Pakistan is that the Indians are still in a belligerent mood, that [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is trying to capitalise on this crisis for the elections coming up within the next two months,” he added.
“So the ball, as far as Pakistan is concerned, is in India’s court.”
Mona Alam, an Islamabad-based defence and security analyst, told Al Jazeera the move was unlikely to be followed by “any sort of de-escalation” from India.
“As soon as the announcement was made by Prime Minister Imran Khan, we saw that Modi kept on repeating the same lines … which spoke about war and never spoke about peace,” said Alam.