Tensions stay high despite move to free pilot

Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was captured after his plane was shot down by Pakistan Air Force. He was seen in a video clip being assaulted by local villagers, but was rescued by Pakistani soldiers.
Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was captured after his plane was shot down by Pakistan Air Force. He was seen in a video clip being assaulted by local villagers, but was rescued by Pakistani soldiers.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

India rejects Pakistan's peace gesture, says Islamabad the aggressor in current conflict

Pakistan is set to release a captured Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot today as "a peace gesture", but India yesterday indicated it was not in the mood for reconciliation, saying its military remains on "high alert" and reiterating that Pakistan was the aggressor.

The offer to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman came a day after the nuclear-armed neighbours exchanged heavy fire on the ground and in the air.

The pilot was captured by Pakistan following a dog fight between Indian and Pakistani air force jets on Wednesday in the worst escalation of tensions in nearly two decades and their first aerial combat since 1971.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan yesterday offered an unconditional release of the pilot, who has emerged as the human face of the conflict and triggered anger and concern in India for his safety.

"We have caught an India pilot, as a peace gesture we will release him," Mr Khan told Pakistan's Parliament yesterday, while warning that his efforts to de-escalate tensions should not be seen as a sign of "weakness".

"I am afraid of miscalculations. We should not even think of war, especially in view of the lethality of the weapons that we have," Mr Khan said.

But India, while thanking Islamabad for its decision to release the IAF pilot, revealed that its army, navy and air force were on "high state of preparedness". Indian officials also said that Pakistan was the aggressor and blamed it for launching air strikes on an Indian military installation. Pakistan has denied the accusation.

PEACE TOKEN

We have caught an India pilot, as a peace gesture we will release him.

PAKISTAN PRIME MINISTER IMRAN KHAN

RESISTANCE

When the enemy tries to destabilise India through a terrorist attack, their motive is also to stop the progress of the country. We have to stand like a wall against their motives.

INDIA'S PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI

"There is high alert along the Line of Control. The mechanised forces are placed on standby. I wish to assure our nation we are fully prepared and there is a heightened state of preparedness," Major-General Surinder Singh Bahl of the Indian Army told a press briefing.

Navy Rear-Admiral D. S. Gujral said the Indian Navy "remains ready on surface, under sea and air" against Pakistan.

Hostilities between the two countries started rising after India launched air strikes against what it said was a terror camp belonging to the Jaish e Mohammed (JeM) group in Pakistan in retaliation for a terror attack in Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitary soldiers. JeM had taken credit for the terror attack.

India on Wednesday had also shared a dossier consisting of what it said were "specific details of JeM complicity in the Pulwama terror attacks and the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan", and that it had sought "verifiable action" from Pakistan.

In a further sign that India was not in the mood to back down, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is facing a general election in April or May, adopted an aggressive tone yesterday.

"When the enemy tries to destabilise India through a terrorist attack, their motive is also to stop the progress of the country. We have to stand like a wall against their motives," he said during a video conference address to members of his Bharatiya Janata Party.

"The country has a new confidence," he added.

Mr Modi did not directly respond to an offer for dialogue from Mr Khan.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, and have struggled with their bilateral relations.

 
 
 
 

New Delhi and Islamabad signed a ceasefire agreement in 2003 but have continued to exchange fire from time to time along the Line of Control or the de facto border between the two countries. India has often blamed Pakistan for using terror as a state policy and has predicated any bilateral dialogue on action against terror groups operating in Pakistan.

Pakistan, on its part, has maintained that Kashmir is the key issue between the two countries, a stance that has prevented any meaningful dialogue between their governments.

Analysts said the pilot's release would not de-escalate current tensions.

"I don't see any substantial change with the IAF pilot being returned," said Dr D. Suba Chandran of the National Institute of Advanced Studies.

"But with this, in Pakistan, Imran Khan is being projected as a statesman and Modi as the aggressor. This is the strategy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2019, with the headline 'Tensions stay high despite move to free pilot'. Print Edition | Subscribe