Abhinandan Varthaman – the captured Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot returned to India after spending nearly 60 hours in Pakistan. Smartly dressed in navy blue blazers, white shirt and grey trousers, Abhinandan briefly smiled as he crossed into India through the Attari-Wagah border, hours later than anticipated.
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Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was shot down on Wednesday while flying a MiG-21 Bison in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft and captured. “He will be taken for a detailed medical checkup. The officer has had to eject from a plane which would have put his body under immense strain,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, reading out a short statement and refusing to take questions.
As Abhinandan Varthaman’s homecoming was lingered, “documentation” was cited as the hold-up. The Press Trust of India quoted sources as saying the handover was delayed as he was forced to record a statement on camera by Pakistani authorities before he was allowed to cross the border. Pakistan put out the video just before his release.
The pilot’s homecoming, which inspired many hashtags on social media, was celebrated across the nation with politicians, celebrities and others saluting his grace and courage in the most dangerous circumstances.
Large crowds had waited for hours to welcome him at the Attari-Wagah crossing, holding flags and garlands and dancing and cheering.
To restrict the crowds, an elaborate flag-lowering ceremony at the Attari-Wagah crossing between Indian and Pakistani soldiers – which draws thousands of spectators on both sides – had been cancelled in the afternoon. New Delhi had earlier asked for permission to send a special IAF flight to bring back the pilot from Islamabad, say sources, but Pakistan rejected the request.
Abhinandan Varthaman, who comes from a family of decorated fighter pilots, became for many a symbol of hope and the easing of tension between India and Pakistan after their biggest standoff in years.
A video later showed Abhinandan Varthaman sipping tea, his eyes swollen. He calmly answered questions, refusing to speak on his mission while praising his treatment by the Pakistan Army.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement that he would be released as a “peace gesture” signaled a thaw after rapid escalation this week.
The announcement marked a dramatic shift in mood after the two countries engaged in an aerial clash for the first time in nearly 50 years on Wednesday. World leaders had urged both countries to step back as hostilities peaked over the past few days as India sent fighter planes to strike a terror training camp in Pakistan and Islamabad tried to target Indian military installations in response.
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