IAF pilot to be released Friday as peace gesture: Pak PM; pilot cannot be a bargaining chip, say Indian govt sources

PTI
Thursday, 28 February 2019

"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 during a joint session of Parliament was greeted by thumping of desks by lawmakers. 

Islamabad/New Delhi: Pakistan will set free captured IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman Friday as a peace gesture, its Premier Imran Khan announced Thursday, a move that came just hours after his foreign minister said the Pakistani leader is ready for telephonic talks with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to de-escalate Indo-Pak tensions.
 
The surprise announcement also came on the heels of India sending a strong message to Pakistan rejecting the possibility of any deal for securing the release of the pilot and demanding his unconditional and immediate repatriation. Indian government sources also emphatically said the pilot cannot be a bargaining chip.
 
"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 during a joint session of Parliament was greeted by thumping of desks by lawmakers. 

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who had earlier in the day said Pakistan is willing to consider returning the pilot if it leads to "de-escalation" of tensions with India, said Premier Khan is ready to talk to Prime Minister Modi to de-escalate Indo-Pak tensions. 

"Prime Minister Imran Khan is ready to talk to Narendra Modi on the telephone and ready to extend an invitation of peace. Is Modi ready?" he told Geo News. 

The pilot bailed out and landed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir(PoK) after his MiG 21 was brought down during a fierce aerial engagement on Wednesday with Pakistan Air Force(PAF) fighters on the Line of Control(LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.
 
As international pressure mounted on India and Pakistan to show restraint and deescalate tensions, American President Donald Trump said the US has some "reasonably attractive news" from the two countries.
 
"We have been involved in trying to help them (India and Pakistan) stop and we have some reasonably decent news," he said in his opening statement at a press conference at the end of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. 

"I think hopefully that (tensions) could be coming to an end, it has been going on for a long time," said Trump amid efforts by backchannel interlocutors considered close to the two countries to defuse Indo-Pak tensions that spiked after the Pulwama suicide attack by a JeM bomber on February 14 in which 40 CRPF jawans were killed.
 
Qureshi said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir will visit Islamabad on Thursday "carrying an important message" from the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. 

In New Delhi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to India called on Prime Minister Modi. 

Pakistani Air Force on Wednesday carried out a retaliatory strike across the Line of Control(LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and attempted to target military installations, a day after Indian struck inside Pakistan, destroying the biggest terrorist training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).
 
Pakistan's Foreign Office (FO) said Wing Commander Varthaman was safe and sound.
 
In Delhi, top government sources said the IAF pilot cannot be a bargaining chip and that India will not strike any deal with Pakistan for his release. 

The sources said India has not sought any consular access to Wing Commander Varthaman as his immediate release is "non-negotiable" and that the onus on deescalating tension between the two countries lies entirely on Islamabad.
 
"We want him back unharmed, unconditionally and immediately. He is not a bargaining chip. There is no question of any deal with Pakistan on his return," the sources added. 

The father of Wing Commander Varthaman said he was proud of his son's bravery and thanked the people for their support and good wishes. 

In a statement, S Varthaman, a retired Air Marshal, referred to a purported video of his son after his capture, and said he spoke like a "true soldier" despite being in captivity and that he was praying he would not get tortured in the neighbouring country and return home "safe and sound".
 
The government sources when asked on talks with Khan said Pakistan must first take "concrete and specific anti-terror steps". 

They also said Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale briefed envoys of several countries including from China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on PAF targeting Indian military installations, in an aggressive behaviour resulting in escalation in tensions. 

The sources indicated that 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 said the Pakistan prime minister has to walk the talk on investigating the Pulwama attack and that India 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, the sources said, adding Pakistan was deliberately whipping up war psychosis and trying to mislead the international community on the situation.
 
Denouncing Pakistan's breach of the Line of Control, they said their air force "specifically targeted Indian military facilities, while we targeted only JeM terror camp".
 
About Wednesday's aerial raid by Pakistan, the sources said over 20 aircraft flew towards Indian air space out of which a few crossed the Line of Control and targeted Indian military facilities.
 
They fired laser guided bombs and narrowly missed our military installations, the sources said, rejecting Khan's remarks that the Pakistani jets did not target Indian defence bases.
 
Defence Ministry officials said Pakistan's claims that its air force did not target the Indian military installations during Wednesday's air intrusion were false.
 
They said the Pakistani jets clearly targeted multiple military installations in Naushera and Rajaouri sector, but their attempts were foiled by the combat patrol team of the Indian Air Force.
 
Pakistani army also shelled civilian areas and forward posts in six sectors along the LoC in Poonch and Rajouri districts Thursday in which one woman was killed and a jawan injured, drawing heavy retaliation from the Indian forces, an official said.

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