Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman crossed the Wagah-Attari border post into India from Pakistan on Friday evening, returning home after his capture by Pakistani authorities on Wednesday. Before the IAF pilot ejected from his aging MiG-21 hit in the aerial dogfight over the skies of Jammu, he had shot down a fourth generation F-16 fighter. He was handed over to Pakistan military officials by villagers in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir where he landed.
A little over 58 hours later, the 38-year-old IAF pilot walked to his freedom at the heavily-guarded Attari border post manned by the Border Security Force. BSF officials, prepping for the return of the IAF pilot, had canceled the retreat ceremony at the border post. “Abhinandan is more important than the ceremony,” a local official said about the IAF officer who Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, had made “every Indian proud”.
“It is good to be back,” the pilot who was dressed in civilian clothes, wearing a blue blazer and gray dress pants, said, according to Amritsar deputy commissioner Shiv Dular Singh Dhillon.
Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, who had come to receive the pilot, said the IAF was happy to have him back. The officer would be taken for a detailed medical check-up because he had ejected out of the jet, he said. Wing Commander Abhinandan is being flown out of Amritsar to Delhi.
Scores of people, many waving flags and singing, had gathered near the Wagah border crossing to give a hero’s welcome to the son of a decorated air force officer.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined the country to welcome the return of Varthaman, saying the nation is proud of his exemplary courage.
“Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan! The nation is proud of your exemplary courage. Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians,” tweeted PM Modi.
The IAF officer has became the human face of the conflict between the two countries when Pakistan Army put out a series of videos that showed him in its custody. In one, he was blindfolded and blood covered and yet, responded to questions from a Pakistan Army with remarkable composure, calm and dignity.
The decision to release the IAF pilot had been announced by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in the national assembly, who described it as a “peace gesture” to India. The announcement was seen as a diplomatic victory in India that had, minutes earlier, rejected an effort by Islamabad to use him as a bargaining tool.
There had been mounting pressure on Pakistan to release the IAF pilot after the Pakistan Air Force tried to bomb a couple of military installations in Jammu and Kashmir to retaliate India’s air strike at terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s biggest training camp in Pakistan.
It was the first time in 50 years that India had ordered Indian Air Force jets to carry out an aerial strike across the Line of Control. Since the escalation, world leaders have scrambled to head off an all-out conflict in the subcontinent. President Donald trump in Hanoi on Thursday said he had been involved in seeking to de-escalate the conflict.