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Indian Officials, Red Cross Greet Freed Pilot At Border Crossing

Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman returns to his home country after his release by Pakistan.
Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman returns to his home country after his release by Pakistan.

Indian officials, accompanied at a border crossing by representatives of the Red Cross, greeted a pilot who had been freed minutes earlier by Pakistan.

"The nation is proud of your exemplary courage," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter on March 1 after Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman walked across the Wagah crossing point into Indian territory.

The handover took several hours, delayed because of procedures including a quick check of his medical condition before he was turned over to Indian officials.

An official told reporters his first words were "it is good to be back in my country."

Varthaman, sporting a black eye, was scheduled to receive another, more-detailed medical exam before taking a flight from nearby Amritsar to New Delhi for a debriefing about his captivity.

"He will be taken for a detailed medical checkup," said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor.

"The officer has had to eject from a plane which would have put his body under immense strain," he added, reading from a statement.

Well-wishers had gathered along the road on the Indian side of the border, but with the delay, most had left when Varthaman finally crossed over around 9 p.m.

The release of Varthaman, whose warplane was shot down in the disputed region of Kashmir, was described as a "peace gesture" by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

"While in captivity, he was treated with dignity and in line with international law," the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Pakistan's military said its air force shot down two India Air Force jets in its airspace and captured a pilot on the ground in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on February 27.

India confirmed the loss of one of its MiG-21s and the capture of its pilot. It said it also foiled an attack by Pakistan warplanes over Kashmir and shot down one Pakistani plane. Islamabad denies any of its aircraft were shot down.

During his captivity, Varthaman was shown on Pakistani TV in his green flight suit saying he was rescued by two Pakistani military personnel after he ejected and found himself surrounded by a group of angry residents in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

The aerial confrontation came after India on February 26 struck what it said was a militant camp in northeastern Pakistan in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed at least 41 Indian troops in the India-controlled part of Kashmir.

A Pakistan-based group, the Jaish-e Muhammad (JeM), claimed responsibility for the February 14 attack -- the deadliest to take place during a three-decade insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir.

India has accused Pakistan of having a "direct hand" in the attack and providing sanctuary to the militants. Islamabad denies involvement.

India's air strikes in Pakistani territory on February 26 were the first since the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and NDTV
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