Ending high-pitch drama and uncertainty stretching over several hours, Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, captured by Pakistanis two days ago after his MiG-21 crashed inside Pakistan, returned to India on Friday night.
Dressed in a blue coat, grey trousers and white shirt, Abhinandan, with his unique mustache, was received by senior Border Security Force officers at 9.21 p.m. at Zero Line that marks the India-Pakistan land border.
While one BSF officer shook his hand, another put his arm around the pilot to escort him back into India.
“Feeling good to be back home,” Abhinandan said in his first reaction after stepping into India, according to Amritsar Deputy Commissioner, Shivdular Singh Dhillon, who received the IAF pilot along with senior IAF and Border Security Force (BSF) officers.
Abhinandan was accompanied from Pakistan side by Group Captain J.D. Kurian. He was surrounded by armed troopers of the Pakistan Rangers up to the border gate.
The Wing Commander was in Pakistani captivity for over 60 hours before his ordeal came to an end after several hours of uncertainty on Friday.
Pakistani authorities kept delaying his return to India through the day on Friday for unexplained reasons. Minutes before his return, Pakistani authorities released a propaganda video in which Abhinandan was forced to say tutored things.
He was whisked from the Attari Joint Check Post (JCP) complex under tight security to the Amritsar International Airport for Delhi. Air Vice Marshall R.G.K. Kapoor told the media outside the JCP that the Wing Commander was “handed to us as per standard operating procedure of the Indian Air Force”.
“He will now be taken for a detailed medical check-up. The check-up is mandated particularly because the officer had to eject from an aeroplane which would have put his entire body under great stress,” Kapoor said.
“The IAF is happy to have Abhinandan back,” said the Air Vice Marshal.
Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Shivdular Singh Dhillon said “happiness in his (Abhinandan’s) eyes said it all” upon his return.
Dhillon said there was no particular reason for the delay by Pakistan in the pilot’s return.
Earlier, Abhinandan was formally handed over to officials of the Indian High Commission at Wagah (in Pakistan) led by Group Captain J.D. Kurian.
The 35-year-old Wing Commander was captured on Wednesday (February 27) by Pakistan after his MiG-21 Bison was hit by Pakistan Air Force jets near the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and it crashed in Pakistani territory.
The Retreat Ceremony at the Attari-Wagah JCP between India and Pakistan was cancelled for Friday by the Border Security Force (BSF) owing to security concerns linked to the pilot’s return.
Scores of enthusiastic people assembled at the border since Friday morning to give a hero’s welcome to the IAF pilot. They were carrying the national Tricolour flags, garlands and posters. The people raised slogans and sang patriotic songs to the beat of drums to keep up the tempo.
The BSF, which mans the check-post and the 553-km International Border with Pakistan in Punjab, was on high alert. Punjab Police and other security agencies had stationed additional personnel in the area since Friday morning.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced on Thursday that the captured pilot will be freed as a “goodwill gesture” after New Delhi demanded his unconditional, immediate and unharmed release.
Tension has been building up between the two nuclear neighbours since the February 14 Pulwama terror attack in which 40 CRPF troopers were martyred when an explosives-laden car, driven by a Jaish-e-Muhammed (LeM) terrorist, rammed into their convoy.
India retaliated on February 26 through a deep strike by IAF Mirage fighter jets at JeM terror facilities in Balakot and two other places.
This led to war-mongering on both sides of the border, leading to a dogfight between IAF and Pakistan Air Force fighter jets near the Line of Control on Wednesday (February 27).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman lauded Abhinandan’s bravery and welcomed his return.