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Pakistan hands captured fighter pilot back to India

U.S. aims to de-escalate Pakistan-India conflict

Delhi -- There were celebrations in India on Friday as Pakistan released fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. He was captured by Pakistan's military on Wednesday morning after his fighter jet was shot down in a dogfight along the two nations' disputed border.

On Thursday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his country would release the Indian pilot as a "peace gesture" in a bid to de-escalate soaring tension after days of cross-border military action between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Friday:

Pakistan's government sought to claim the moral high ground in the latest flare-up of the decades-old dispute, sending a tweet confirming Varthaman's handover, with the hashtag, #PakistanLeadsWithPeace.  

Indian Air Force officials at the border confirmed to reporters that the pilot was back in their care and that he would be taken immediately for a detailed medical check-up, which is mandated because he had to eject from his plane. 

"We are happy to have him back," the Air Force officer said at the border, without taking any questions.

People turned out in large numbers early Friday morning at the Wagah-Attari border crossing, about 300 miles from New Delhi, where Pakistan handed the pilot over to India. Hundreds could be seen waving Indian flags and beating drums to welcome Varthaman, who has been celebrated as a hero. 

To avoid an uncontrollable crowd and media frenzy, police eventually asked people to leave the border crossing. The handover was delayed for hours on Friday without explanation from either side, but Varthaman finally crossed the border just after 9 p.m. local time (10:30 a.m. Eastern).  

Pakistan India
A convoy carrying captured Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman arrives at Pakistan's border with India in Wagah, Pakistan, March 1, 2019.  AP

India seemed wary of turning the pilot's homecoming into a spectacle. There is significant military protocol that has to be followed now that the pilot has been returned from captivity; including the medical check and full debriefing by senior officers.

Indian Air Force personnel were at the border and were to fly Vardhaman to New Delhi. Indian media reports said India wanted to send a special plane to bring back the 35-year-old wing commander, but Pakistan turned down the request.   

Modi spoke for the first time about the captured pilot on Friday. At an election rally in Tamil Nadu, the pilot's home state, Modi said, "Every Indian is proud that brave Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is from Tamil Nadu."

India bombs Pakistan as tensions rise between nuclear neighbors

But while the tension has eased to some degree, with many foreign nations including the U.S. stepping in to urge calm and push for dialogue, the two long-time foes' military forces have continued to exchange fire, mostly shelling, along the disputed border in the Kashmir region.

Seven civilians were injured on the Indian-controlled side of Kashmir, in the Uri border area, by Pakistani firing over night, Indian officials said. The shelling continued Friday afternoon in the Nowshera sector, also along the Kashmir border. 

When Pakistan's Khan announced on Thursday that the pilot would be returned, he did so with a warning to Modi: "I want to say it to India today: Don't take this any further, Pakistan will be forced to retaliate," Khan said. "I hope the international community will play its part to ensure the situation does not escalate beyond this." 

Speaking earlier on Thursday, Modi spoke in strong words against Pakistan, urging his nation to "stand like a wall" against an enemy he said "supports terror." 

"India will fight as one, India will win as one," Modi said. 

While the government tried to keep a relatively tight lid on the actual handover at the border on Friday, Indians enthusiastically celebrated their Air Force pilot's release online, with the #WelcomeHomeAbhinandan hashtag spreading fast across social media. He has been the top Twitter trend in India since Thursday afternoon, when Pakistan announced his imminent release.