Pakistan ready to hand over Indian pilot as airspace partially reopens

  • thepeels
  • March 1, 2019
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Pakistani officials brought a captured Indian pilot to a border crossing with India to be handed over, while the country’s civil aviation authority partially reopened its airspace on Friday.

The pilot, identified as Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken in a convoy that set out from the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the border crossing at Wagah. Varthaman was escorted by military vehicles with soldiers, their weapons drawn.

On the Indian side of the border, Indian policemen lined the road as a group of cheering Indian residents from the area waved India’s national flag and held up a huge garland of flowers to welcome him back.

Islamabad has said the handover is a gesture of peace that could defuse tensions and avoid another war between India and Pakistan.

Earlier, Pakistan’s civil aviation authority issued a statement saying all domestic and international flights will be allowed to and from the cities of Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta.

It says other airports, including the one located in the eastern city of Lahore that borders India, will remain closed until March 4.

Islamabad closed its air space on Wednesday after saying that Pakistan’s military shot down two Indian warplanes and captured a pilot, escalating tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals. The closures snarled air traffic.

As Pakistan prepared to hand over the captured Indian pilot, blistering cross-border attacks across the disputed Himalayan Kashmir region continued for a fourth straight day, even as the two nuclear-armed neighbours seek to defuse the most serious confrontation in two decades.

Tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers face off along the disputed border known as the Line of Control in one of the world’s most volatile regions. Tensions have been running high since Indian aircraft crossed into Pakistan on Tuesday carrying out what India called a pre-emptive strike against militants blamed for a Feb. 14 suicide attack in Indian Kashmir that killed more than 40 troops.

Tensions between India and Pakistsan have been running high since a Feb. 14 suicide attack in Indian Kashmir that killed more than 40 troops. (Danish Ismail/Reuters)

World leaders have scrambled to head off an all-out war on the Asian subcontinent. U.S. President Donald trump in Hanoi on Thursday said he had been involved in seeking to de-escalate the conflict.

“I think hopefully that’s going to be coming to an end,” Trump said, without elaborating. “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 organization and some peace, and I think probably that’s going to be happening.”

On Friday, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, is expected in Islamabad with an urgent message from the kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

India bans Kashmiri political, religious group

India banned the largest political and religious group in Indian-controlled Kashmir in an ongoing crackdown on activists seeking the end of Indian rule in the disputed region.

Authorities imposed a security lockdown in several parts of the region on Friday, including in downtown areas of the main city of Srinagar, in anticipation of protests against Indian rule. Police and soldiers, carrying automatic rifles and wearing riot gear, erected iron barricades and laid razor wire on roads and intersections to cut off neighbourhoods.

They patrolled streets in Srinagar and imposed restrictions around the city’s main mosque, Jamia Masjid, prohibiting congregational Friday prayers.

Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard as they block a road in Srinagar. (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)

India’s Home Ministry issued the five-year ban on Jama’at-e-Islami, or JeI, on Thursday night, accusing the group of being an “unlawful association” and supporting militancy in the region.

Police have arrested at least 400 activists and leaders, mainly from Jama’at-e-Islami, which seeks self-determination for the entire Himalayan region, which is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety.

Meanwhile, two rebels, a paramilitary officer and a counterinsurgency officer were killed in a gun battle Friday in the northwestern Handwara area, police said. Five soldiers were also wounded.

“If the unlawful activities of JeI are not curbed and controlled immediately, it is likely to escalate its subversive activities … by destabilizing the government established by law,” India’s Home Ministry said in a statement.

The group’s head, Abdul Hamid Fayaz, dozens of its top leaders and at least 300 members have been arrested since last week. Some of the arrests occurred Thursday night in raids by police after the ban, officials said.

Jama’at-e-Islami, created in 1942, has been banned twice previously and runs hundreds of schools, charities, orphanages, public libraries and reading rooms with a strong cadre base across the region. It participated in Indian elections several times before 1989, when an armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted in the Himalayan region.

Since then, the group has been seen as the ideological force behind the region’s largest indigenous rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen.

Overnight shelling reported

Residents of the Pakistani border town of Chikhoti reported heavy shelling overnight and Friday morning. More than 200 people had fled to a military organized camp about 20 kilometres away from the border.

Kashmir has been divided but claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan since almost immediately after the two countries’ creation in 1947. They have fought three wars, two directly dealing with the disputed region.

The violence this week marked the most serious escalation of the long-simmering conflict since 1999, when Pakistan’s military sent a ground force into Indian-controlled Kashmir at Kargil. That year also saw an Indian fighter jet shoot down a Pakistani naval aircraft, killing all 16 on board.

This latest wave of tensions between the two rivals first began after the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing on Indian paramilitary forces. India long has accused Pakistan of cultivating such militant groups to attack it. Pakistan has said it was not involved in that attack and was ready to help New Delhi in the investigation.