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Indian Air Force pilot returns from Pakistan as violence rages in Kashmir

An Indian Air Force pilot detained in Pakistan after being shot down in an aerial engagement with Pakistan Air Force aircraft, returned to India on Friday, March 1, after being freed in what Islamabad called a “peace gesture” during the tensest standoff between the two countries in years.

But fresh violence raged in disputed Kashmir, with 11 people killed in the Indian-administered part of the tinder-box territory, suggesting that the spike in tensions sparked by the killing of 40 Indian soldiers in a suicide bombing last month may not be over.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, whose MiG-21 Bison was shot down on Wednesday over Kashmir, crossed on foot into India at the Wagah border checkpoint late Friday, sporting a black eye from his ordeal.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said he was “treated with dignity and in line with international law,” and that his release was “aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India.”

Mohammad Faisal, Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesperson, earlier told reporters on Thursday that the pilot had “some mishap before our officers reached there because he was caught by the public.”

Thousands of Indians, waving flags, singing and dancing patriotic songs, had gathered at the crossing point on Friday afternoon but the crowd dwindled after his release was delayed by hours. Others danced and shouted slogans in New Delhi.

In India the experienced pilot’s release was seen as a diplomatic victory, but New Delhi warned that its military remained on “heightened” alert.

Aerial incursions by both sides

Tensions escalated after the February 14 suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir claimed by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Twelve days later, Indian warplanes launched strikes near Balakot inside Pakistani territory, with the military claiming to have hit a militant camp.

An infuriated Pakistan denied casualties or damage, but a day later launched its own incursion across the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border dividing Kashmir.

That sparked an aerial engagement, with both countries claiming they had shot down each other’s warplanes, and Abhinandan’s capture.

India claimed on Thursday that electronic signatures “conclusively” showed Pakistani F-16s had been involved in the incursion, and displayed pieces of a U.S.-made AMRAAM AIM-120C air-to-air missile that it said had been recovered in Indian territory.

The tensions prompted Pakistan to close down its airspace, disrupting thousands of travellers worldwide. Its major airports reopened on Friday.

Violence rages in Kashmir

On Thursday and Friday both countries continued to fire across the LoC, with mortar fire killing four people on the Indian side.

They included a mother and two children killed when a shell pulverised their house in Poonch district late Friday, police said.

Indian troops also laid siege to a house in Handwara district, believing they had killed two militants inside.

However one survived, a police official told AFP. Hours later, when security forces went in to retrieve bodies, a man emerged from debris and opened fire, killing four soldiers before he was shot dead.

“Influence of terrorists and terrorism has been curtailed and it is going to be curtailed even more. This is a New India,” Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing a tough election due by May, said Friday.

“This is an India that will return the damage done by terrorists with interest,” he said.

After the pilot’s release he tweeted: “The nation is proud of your exemplary courage … Hail to the motherland!”

India’s junior foreign minister and former army chief, Vijay Kumar Singh, tweeted that the “welcome” release of the pilot was “the first of many steps that #Pakistan must take to reinforce their commitment to peace”.

‘We need peace’

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Both nuclear-armed rivals claim Kashmir in full, and they have fought three wars over control of the Himalayan territory.

India has deployed half a million troops in the part it administers to counter militants fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan which it says are backed by Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died since a revolt that broke out in 1989. Last year was the deadliest in a decade with almost 600 killed, monitors say, sparking anger among locals.

“Poor people are getting killed and their homes are destroyed … We need peace,” Nagina Bano, one of 300 locals who attended the funeral on Friday for a woman killed in the cross-border bombardment, told AFP.

A civilian was also killed during protests in Indian Kashmir, police told AFP.

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With reporting from AFP

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