After a delay of over 5 hours by Pakistan, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman finally returned to India on Friday. Pakistan changed the timing of his handover twice before he was officially handed over to India at around 9.25 pm on Friday after spending over two days in the custody of Pakistani army officials.
Dressed in a blue suit, Wing Commander Abhinandan was officially received by a delegation of officials of the Indian Air Force at the Wagah border amid high security. Air Vice Marshals Prabhakaran and RGK Kapoor were present to receive him. The pilot was whisked away in a convoy by Indian officials away from the public glare. He will be taken to New Delhi for a debriefing and a medical check-up.
"Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman has been handed over to us. He has been released as per the standard operating procedures. He will be taken for a detailed medical check-up because he has ejected from an aircraft which puts a strain on the body. The IAF is happy to have him back,” Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor told the media after his release.
A large crowd at the Wagah border had started converging from 6 am on Friday, waiting for a glimpse of the pilot, whose release was secured on Thursday when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that he will be returned to India as a ‘peace gesture’. The evening retreat ceremony usually held at the Wagah border was cancelled ahead of the pilot's return.
On Friday morning, the pilot was brought by Pakistani authorities from Rawalpindi to Lahore in a special plane and handed over first to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) under rules of the Geneva Convention. He was then brought to the Wagah-Attari border and returned to India.
Abhinandan’s family had left for New Delhi from Chennai late on Thursday night. They did not speak to the media and had requested privacy. Visuals put out by news channels showed his family – his father, retired Air Marshal Varthaman, his mother and three other family members – being applauded as they boarded the plane from Chennai to New Delhi. From New Delhi, they travelled to Amritsar to welcome Wing Commander Abhinandan.
According to news reports, India wanted to send a special flight to Pakistan to bring back the IAF pilot, but Pakistan turned down the request. Late on Thursday night, it was conveyed to India that Wing Commander Abhinandan will be sent back to India through the Wagah-Attari border, reports PTI.
Wing Commander Abhinandan was taken into custody by Pakistan on Wednesday after his MiG 21 Bison aircraft was shot down in PoK. Pakistani fighters jets had invaded Indian airspace on Wednesday morning, with IAF aircraft including Wing Commander Abhinandan giving chase to Pakistani F-16s across the Line of Control (LoC). Media reports state that the Wing Commander had brought down PAF’s F-16 jet before his MiG-21 Bison aircraft received hits and was brought down. He was then apprehended by officials of the Pakistani Army and taken into custody.
Following his capture, videos of the IAF pilot were shared on social media by official Pakistani Twitter handle. The clips, which go against the Geneva Convention, showed him being assaulted by a mob in Pakistan, another of him blindfolded and tied up replying to questions, while yet another showed him sipping tea and responding to a Pakistani official’s questions.
India had issued a strongly-worded demarche to Pakistan objecting to the ‘vulgar display’ of the injured pilot and had demanded his immediate and safe return.
On Thursday, Pakistan Prime Minister told the Pakistan National Assembly that Wing Commander Abhinandan will be released on Friday as a ‘peace gesture and as a first step to open negotiations.’ Pakistan’s move to release the IAF pilot followed massive pressure from the international community including the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia. India had also taken a tough stance, refusing to negotiate his release.
Addressing a joint press conference along with the Indian Army and the Indian Navy on Thursday, Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor had said, “We are happy that our pilot, who had fallen across the Line of Control and was in custody of Pakistan, is being released. We're extremely happy to have him back. We only see it as a gesture which is in consonance with all Geneva conventions.”