Pakistan pledges to release captive Indian pilot as ‘peace gesture’

Imran Khan is trying to defuse a tense military standoff between the nuclear-armed arch rivals

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Pakistan will release a captured Indian pilot as a peace gesture to help defuse a tense military stand off between the nuclear-armed arch rivals, Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Thursday.

The former cricketer said he would free Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was shot down in a dogfight over disputed Kashmir as a way to de-escalate the worst confrontation between India and Pakistan in nearly two decades.

Pakistan's overture followed two days of dramatically escalating tensions in which the adversaries said they had traded air strikes and fought aerial combat.

"We have captured a pilot of India. As a gesture of peace we are going to release him to India tomorrow," Mr Khan told the country's parliament. “But this de-escalation effort should not be considered as weakness."

India welcomed Mr Khan’s decision to free the pilot. Air Vice Marshal R J K Kapoor, an Indian air force spokesman, said the force was “extremely happy and looks forward to the return of the Indian pilot”.

It remains unclear whether the pilot will be flown from Pakistan on Friday.

But the two sides continued to trade fire across the heavily militarised line of control in Kashmir which represents the de facto border in the disputed territory.

World powers again urged restraint and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had spoken to both sides to tell them to avoid “any action that would escalate and greatly increase risk”.

Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, also called both sides to urge them to talk. He stressed the UAE's will to support positive relations between the two neighbouring countries, noting the common historical and cultural ties they share, according to Emirati news agency Wam.

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al Jubeir was due to visit Pakistan on Thursday with a special message from the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said.

It is not clear whether it is related to the ongoing crisis, but the Prince visited both India and Pakistan in February.

Mr Qureshi said he spoke to Mr Jubeir on the phone the previous night but did not give further details.

The Saudi foreign minister will arrive in Islamabad on a private plane even though Pakistan temporarily closed its airspace to all civilian traffic amid tensions with India.

India had demanded the immediate release of Wg Cdr Varthaman after his MiG-21 jet was downed on Wednesday in a clash with Pakistani jets. Islamabad released video of the airman, firstly showing him bloodied and blindfolded and later cleaned up and saying he was being well treated.

The broadcast of the footage was condemned in India as a "vulgar display” of injured personnel.

Schools in Kashmir were closed on both sides of the frontier and hospitals said staff leave had been cancelled in anticipation of more fighting.

By Thursday afternoon fresh clashes erupted along the line-of-control, with India's army saying Pakistani soldiers were targeting nearly two dozen Indian forward points with mortar and gunfire.

Narendra Modi, Mr Khan's counterpart, addressed a rally of supporters calling for the country to stand united against terrorists' attempts to destabilise India.

He has come under intense pressure to retaliate against Pakistan ever since at least 40 paramilitary police were killed in a suicide bombing on their convoy on February 14.

India has blamed the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad group and on Thursday handed over a dossier of evidence to Islamabad. Pakistan has denied any involvement in the attack and said it was carried out by homegrown militants from Indian-occupied Kashmir, but has vowed to act if it is present with actionable intelligence.

Mr Modi did not mention Pakistan in his remarks to Hindu nationalist party workers, but said a united India would “fight, live, work and win”.

"India's enemies are conspiring to create instability in the country through terror attacks," he said.

It was not immediately clear if Mr Khan's overture would lower tensions. An Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP that even if the pilot was returned home, New Delhi would not hesitate to launch pre emptive strikes if it feared a similar militant attack was looming.

Yet Donald Trump had earlier in the day said he was optimistic that the row may be cooling.

"I think hopefully that's going to be coming to an end," the US president said in Hanoi where he was holding talks with Kim Jong un.

"It's been going on for a long time - decades and decades. There's a lot of dislike, unfortunately, so we've been in the middle trying to help them both out, see if we can get some organisation and some peace, and I think probably that's going to be happening.”

Kashmir has been at the heart of tensions between the neighbours since partition in 1947. Both claim the whole of the territory, but it is divided between them.