Source: Times of India
NEW DELHI/ATTARI: Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned to a hero’s welcome + from his country late on Friday, almost 60 hours after he was dramatically taken captive in PoK after being shot down while chasing an intruding Pakistani F-16.
Abhinandan arrived in India after an agonising day-long wait via the Wagah-Attari border, after Pakistan rejected India’s request to allow IAF to fly him in a special aircraft.
Abhinandan finally crossed the border around 9.25pm to enter India. He was received by his parents and senior IAF officers. Dressed in a blue blazer and grey trousers, he was accompanied to the border by Group Captain Joy Thomas Kurien, India’s air attache in Islamabad, and by a director of the Pakistan Foreign Office.
“It’s good to be back in my country,” Amritsar deputy commissioner Shivdular Singh Dhillon quoted Abhinandan as saying. A huge crowd had gathered at Wagah-Attari border to have a glimpse of the fighter pilot who has captured the national imagination with his courage and grace under extreme pressure, but he was immediately taken to the airport and flown in an IAF Embraer jet to New Delhi.
A “confession” was extracted from Abhinandan praising Pakistan at an ISI facility in Lahore. Indian officials said this was extracted under duress and had only undermined Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s “peace gesture” of releasing him. “This was in complete violation of the Geneva Conventions,’’ said a senior official, while talking about how quickly the video had made its way to the Pakistan media.
Abhinandan had a black eye but walked ramrod straight, betraying no sign of the injuries inflicted by the mob who had pounced on him when he bailed out from his MiG-21 and landed in PoK. As per protocol, he will first undergo a thorough medical examination to ascertain the extent of his injuries due to the ejection and subsequent beating. If required, the wing commander will be hospitalised before he is declared fit for flying again.
He will also undergo a “debriefing session” on his captivity in the custody of the Pakistan army.
The ministry of external affairs had approached Pakistan’s foreign ministry earlier in the day with an official communication asking that Abhinandan be allowed to travel in a special Indian aircraft to India. The government had also provided Islamabad with a list of officials whom it wanted to travel to Pakistan to bring the pilot back. This included an air vice marshal and two wing commanders.
India had sought flight clearance for Lahore and Islamabad, depending upon where Pakistan wanted to hand him over, but Pakistan denied it, saying its air space was shut. “It was in the hands of Pakistani authorities to give flight clearance even if the air space was closed for commercial flights but that didn’t happen,’’ said an official here.
Calling Varthaman a PoW, Pakistan said while in captivity, he was treated “with dignity and in line with international law’’. It claimed the goodwill gesture was aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India.
Official sources here said after the IAF pilot was brought to Lahore in the evening, he was taken to an ISI establishment and kept there for several hours. It is here that he was filmed talking about how he had been treated by Pakistan authorities. Indian officials said the video was doctored heavily as it had a number of edits. Abhinandan was also asked to make a similar statement in writing. According to officials here, this was the main reason for the delay in the wing commander’s arrival in India.
Government officials blamed Pakistan for turning Abhinandan’s return into a public spectacle. This is exactly what India wanted to avoid when it approached Pakistan to fly him in directly from Islamabad.
“Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman has been released as per standard procedures and handed over to us. He will be taken for a detailed medical check-up because he had ejected from an aircraft which had put strain on his body. The IAF is happy to have him back,” Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor told the media after his release.
Large groups of people, waving tricolours and dancing to drum beats, had gathered at Attari to greet Abhinandan. They had to return disappointed as they could not catch even a glimpse of the pilot.
Worried about the presence of crowds at the border, India had even closed the flag lowering ceremony for the public, which is held every evening.