A man identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan has been held in Pakistan after his MiG-21 jet was downed during a dogfight between Pakistani and Indian warplanes over the ceasefire line in the disputed Kashmir region on Wednesday.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said at a joint session of parliament that the pilot would be released at the Wagah border crossing on the demarcation line dividing the two countries on Friday afternoon, local time.
Despite the gesture, Indian officials have so far remained guarded, On Thursday, Indian Army Major General Surinder Singh Bahal told a joint news conference that India remains on “high alert” and that it was “fully prepared and in a heightened state of readiness to respond to any provocation by Pakistan.”
The stand-off has seen both sides engage in increased military exchanges across the heavily fortified Kashmir border. On Thursday, Pakistan said that four civilians had died as a result of cross-border shelling by Indian forces. In response, India accused Pakistan of initiating the exchange of fire.
Speaking with CNN’s Christine Amanpour on Thursday, Qureshi said that the release of the pilot should be seen as an expression of his country’s willingness to de-escalate.
He also confirmed that Masood Azhar, leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group that India said it targeted in its pre-dawn strike in Pakistan territory on Tuesday, is in Pakistan. “He is very unwell,” Quresh said. “He is unwell to the extent that he cannot leave his house, because he is really unwell, so that’s the information I have.”
On Wednesday, Pakistan said its air force shot down two Indian fighter jets. India confirmed the loss of one plane and said it shot down a Pakistani jet as it responded to the incident.
Indian military officials accused Pakistan of “factually incorrect statements” on its plane shootings and intentionally targeting military installations. Pakistan said they dropped weapons in open space where there was no human presence or military posts.
The Wagah border crossing where the pilot is expected to be handed over is known for its daily parade known as the “beating retreat” ceremony.
Every evening there for 60 years, Pakistan’s Rangers and India’s Border Security Force take part in a lowering-of-the-flags ceremony before sunset.
The ceremony, which ends with soldiers folding their countries’ flags and shaking hands, draws attendees from both sides of the border, as well as international tourists.
The immediate trigger for the latest confrontation was a suicide car bomb attack on February 14 in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which killed 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers. India blamed the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed for the attack, the deadliest on security forces since the beginning of the insurgency in the late 1980s.
“The world is watching our collective will. We trust our army’s capability and because of this, it is extremely necessary that nothing should happen that harms their morale or that our enemies should get a chance to raise a finger against us,” Modi said Thursday.
After the February 14 attack, Modi expressed “deep anger” and promised that those responsible would pay a heavy price. However, he has been quiet in recent days.
Modi’s reluctance to make a public comment on the escalating crisis along the border in disputed Kashmir is in stark contrast to Pakistan Prime Minister Khan, who called for dialogue between the two sides.
Speaking in a national address Wednesday, Khan said that any further escalation between the countries would be beyond the two leaders’ control. He warned that because India and Pakistan had nuclear weapons, the stakes were too high for any “miscalculation” in conflict.
“World history tells us that there are miscalculations in wars. But my question to the Indian government is: Given the arms that we and you have, can we afford any miscalculation?” he said. “It will neither be in my control, nor in the control of (Indian Prime Minister) Narendra Modi.”
CNN’s Swati Gupta and Adeel Raja contributed to this report.
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