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Pak to release IAF pilot after India says there will be no deal to secure his freedom


Press Trust of India Islamabad/New Delhi
Pakistan announced Thursday that it will free captured IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman as a peace gesture, hours after a strong message from India demanding his unconditional release, largely de-escalating tensions between the two neighbours.
Prime Minister Imran Khan's surprise announcement to a joint session of Parliament, that Varthaman will be released Friday, was greeted by loud thumping of desks by the lawmakers. Earlier, his foreign minister said Khan was also willing to talk to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the phone to talk peace.
However, India appears in no mood to have talks with Pakistan, saying it first wants action from Islamabad on combatting terrorism. New Delhi had also made it clear that Varthaman cannot be a bargaining chip while demanding his unconditional and immediate repatriation.
Though India has secured what it wanted, there was no immediate reaction from the Indian government on the development.
"In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow (Friday), and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody," Khan said.
The pilot bailed out and landed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir(PoK) after his MiG 21 was brought down during a fierce aerial engagement on Wednesday with Pakistan Air Force(PAF) fighters on the Line of Control(LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, a day after India bombed terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed's biggest training camp in Pakistan. Reports said that the wing commander shot down a Pakistan F-16 before being hit.
As international pressure mounted on India and Pakistan to show restraint and deescalate tensions, U.S President Donald Trump said he has some "reasonably attractive news" from the two South Asian countries.
"We have been involved in trying to help them (India and Pakistan) stop and we have some reasonably decent news," he said in his opening statement at a press conference at the end of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi.
"I think hopefully that (tensions) could be coming to an end, it has been going on for a long time," said Trump amid efforts by backchannel interlocutors considered close to the two countries to defuse Indo-Pak tensions that spiked after the Pulwama suicide attack by a JeM bomber on February 14 in which 40 CRPF jawans were killed.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir will visit Islamabad on Thursday "carrying an important message" from the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
In New Delhi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to India called on Prime Minister Modi, indicating that the country had some role in security the pilot's release.
Pakistani Air Force on Wednesday carried out a retaliatory strike across the Line of Control(LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and attempted to target military installations, a day after India's strike on the JeM facility in Balakot.
In Delhi, top government sources said India has not sought any consular access to Varthaman as his immediate release is "non-negotiable" and that the onus on deescalating tension between the two countries lies entirely on Islamabad.
"We want him back unharmed, unconditionally and immediately. He is not a bargaining chip. There is no question of any deal with Pakistan on his return," a source added.
Varthaman's father said he was proud of his son's bravery and thanked the people for their support and good wishes.
In a statement, Air Marshal (retd.) S Varthaman referred to a purported video of his son after his capture, and said he spoke like a "true soldier" despite being in captivity and that he was praying he would not get tortured in the neighbouring country and return home "safe and sound".
The government sources when asked whether talks with Khan will take place, said Pakistan must first take "concrete and specific anti-terror steps".
They also said Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale briefed envoys of several countries including from China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on PAF targeting Indian military installations, in an aggressive behaviour resulting in escalation in tensions.
The sources indicated that Pakistan's effort to link the release of the pilot with "de-escalation" of tensions with India has not gone down well in New Delhi.
They said the Imran Khan has to walk the talk on investigating the Pulwama attack and that India wants immediate, credible and verifiable action against terrorists and their proxies.
Pakistan has to take concrete steps against JeM, the sources said when asked about Khan's offer of talks with India, the sources said, adding Pakistan was deliberately whipping up war psychosis and trying to mislead the international community on the situation.
Denouncing Pakistan's breach of the Line of Control, they said their air force "specifically targeted Indian military facilities, while we targeted only JeM terror camp".
About Wednesday's aerial raid by Pakistan, the sources said over 20 aircraft flew towards Indian air space out of which a few crossed the Line of Control and targeted Indian military facilities.
They fired laser guided bombs and narrowly missed our military installations, the sources said, rejecting Khan's remarks that the Pakistani jets did not target Indian defence bases.
Defence Ministry officials said Pakistan's claims that its air force did not target the Indian military installations during Wednesday's air intrusion were false.
They said the Pakistani jets clearly targeted multiple military installations in Naushera and Rajaouri sector, but their attempts were foiled by the combat patrol team of the Indian Air Force.
Pakistani army also shelled civilian areas and forward posts in six sectors along the LoC in Poonch and Rajouri districts Thursday in which one woman was killed and a jawan injured, drawing heavy retaliation from the Indian forces, an official said.

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First Published: Feb 28 2019 | 6:51 PM IST

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