In first sign of de-escalation between India and Pakistan, Imran Khan announces release of IAF pilot

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Published: March 1, 2019 6:19:13 AM

Imran Khan made the announcement during a joint session of the Pakistan parliament

Evidence of missile from the downed Pakistani Sukhoi is displayed during a joint defence presser at the South Block in New Delhi on Thursday (Express Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

In first signs of de-escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan a day after both countries downed a fighter each, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday announced that captured IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be released on Friday as a gesture of peace and the “first step” to open negotiations with New Delhi.

Khan made the announcement during a joint session of the Pakistan parliament after US President Donald Trump, speaking in Hanoi at the end of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, told reporters: “We have been involved in trying to help them (India and Pakistan) stop and we have some reasonably decent news… I think hopefully that (tensions) could be coming to an end, it has been going on for a long time.”

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In Washington, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had spoken with the leaders of India and Pakistan and urged them to avoid “any action that would escalate and greatly increase risk”. Pompeo also spoke to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. In a statement, the Pentagon said US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan had been working on efforts to de-escalate tensions, urging both Pakistan and India to avoid further military action.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Khan was also willing to talk to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the phone to talk peace. But New Delhi has made it clear that it is in no mood for talks, saying it first wants Islamabad to act against terror outfits. On Wednesday, India had sought unconditional and immediate repatriation of Varthaman, underlining that his release could not be a bargaining chip.

Qureshi said Saudi foreign minister Adel al Jubeir would be visiting Islamabad Thursday “carrying an important message” from Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. In New Delhi, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to India called on Prime Minister Modi.

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In the Pakistan parliament, Khan told lawmakers: “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… The only purpose of our strike was to demonstrate our capability and will. We did not want to inflict any casualty on India as we wanted to act in a responsible manner.”

He warned if India moved ahead with “aggression”, Pakistan would be forced to retaliate and urged the Indian leadership not to push for escalation because war was no solution to a problem. He said he “tried to call” the Prime Minister Modi on the phone Wednesday because “escalation is not in our interests nor in India’s”.

(With inputs from PTI)

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