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Pakistan hands over Indian pilot captured from downed plane in Kashmir

Narinder NANU / AFP | People shout slogans and wave the national flag near the India-Pakistan border in Wagah on March 1, 2019, as they wait for the return of an Indian Air Force pilot being returned by Pakistan.

Pakistan released a downed Indian pilot back to India on Friday, the Pakistani foreign ministry said, amid a tense standoff between the nuclear-armed neighbours. Crowds of Indians had gathered at the countries’ main border crossing in anticipation.

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The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken in a convoy that set out from the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the border crossing at Wagah on Friday, escorted by military vehicles with soldiers, their weapons drawn.

Pakistani TV footage showed him walking across the border near the town of Wagah just before 9pm local time (1600 GMT).

On the Indian side of the border, turbaned Indian policemen had lined the road as a crowd of cheering Indian residents from the area waved the national flag and held up a huge garland of flowers ready to welcome the pilot back.

Authorities imposed a security lockdown in several parts of the region on Friday, including in downtown areas of the main city of Srinagar, in anticipation of protests against Indian rule.

India’s home ministry issued the ban on Jama’at-e-Islami on Thursday night, accusing the group of being an “unlawful association” and supporting militancy in the region.

‘Hero’s welcome’

Reporting from Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, FRANCE 24’s Shreya Banerjee said the pilot’s parents would be at the Wagah border, along with Indian Air Force personnel, and thousands of residents ready to give the pilot “a hero’s welcome.”

On Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told a joint session of parliament that Islamabad would release the captured pilot as a “gesture of peace".

Abhinandan was shot down over Kashmir on Wednesday, after a dogfight in the skies over the disputed Himalayan region that sent tensions between India and Pakistan to their highest levels in years and alarmed world powers, who issued calls for restraint.

Pakistan to re-start some flights

The scheduled release of the pilot came as Pakistani civil aviation authorities announced that four airports would begin partial operations later Friday, following their suspension after military tensions with India erupted earlier this week.

The decision to re-open Pakistani airspace came amid signs that the conflict between the neighbours is defusing.

Tensions remain high, however, especially in Kashmir, where both countries fired barrages of shells across the de facto border at one another, leaving at least one dead as the troubled region braces for renewed hostilities.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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