Pakistan Frees Indian Pilot Who Was Beaten by a Mob and Then Served Tea

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NEW DELHI — When an Indian fighter pilot who had been captured by Pakistan was released on Friday, it capped a humiliating episode for India and a surreal week for him.

First the pilot, Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman, was soaring through the sky in a MiG-21 on Wednesday. Then he was shot down by Pakistani forces.

After parachuting into enemy territory and being surrounded by a mob, he tried to eat some of the documents he was carrying, according to Indian news media reports. He was then badly beaten before being rescued by Pakistani troops.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Over the next few days, videos of him being interrogated in Pakistani custody spread on social media around the world.

In one, Wing Commander Varthaman is blindfolded, hands tied behind his back, face still bloody. In another, he is cleaned up and drinking tea.

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Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan VarthamanCreditPakistan Armed Forces, via Associated Press

With his dark handlebar mustache and stoic demeanor, the wing commander, 35, became the face of India and Pakistan’s conflict over the disputed Kashmir region, and a major prize in a geopolitical battle.

Over the past week, the escalation of hostilities, including aerial dogfights and heavy shelling along the border between Pakistan and India — both of which are nuclear powers — set South Asia on edge.

But those tensions eased Friday evening as Wing Commander Varthaman was released shortly after 9:20 p.m. local time.

He walked through a border checkpoint wearing a blue sport coat and white dress shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, and gray slacks. He seemed relaxed. Indian border guards shook his hand and whisked him away. Then he disappeared in a convoy of Indian government vehicles.

He had been scheduled to emerge hours earlier at 5 p.m., and Indian officials said they did not know the reason for the delay. But they seemed unfazed and said Wing Commander Varthaman was happy to be back on Indian soil.

Several outside nations, including the United States and China, had been urging Pakistan to release the pilot to de-escalate the crisis.

On Friday, in a speech shortly before Wing Commander Varthaman was released, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, called him “brave” and said he was an example of the “new India.”

“This is an India that will return the damage done by terrorists with interest,” said Mr. Modi, who faces a major election in the coming months. Many Indians are now angry at Mr. Modi and feel that India’s military moves in the past week backfired.

The troubles started on Feb. 14, when a suicide bomber in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir rammed a car packed with explosives into an Indian military convoy, killing more than 40 troops.

It was the most devastating attack in Kashmir in decades, and India immediately blamed Pakistan, accusing it of helping the bomber. Pakistan denied any role.

Western intelligence officials have said that Pakistani security services allow anti-India militants to operate in Pakistan and that some of these militant groups provide material support and expertise, like bomb making know-how, to insurgents in the Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir.

On Tuesday, India took the bold step of sending a dozen warplanes into Pakistan. They dropped bombs on what India claimed was a terrorist training camp, though witnesses in the area said the bombs had fallen in an empty forest, injuring one man, an older villager.

A newscast showed Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman being released by Pakistani forces on Friday. The Indian fighter pilot was captured earlier this week after his plane was shot down.CreditCreditTv/Reuters

Pakistan retaliated on Wednesday by flying planes across the border into Indian airspace.

While Indian officials have not detailed how Wing Commander Varthaman was shot down, Western officials said they believe he was lured into a trap by Pakistani jets.

They say that after Pakistani jets crossed into Indian airspace, they quickly turned and flew away, tempting their pursuers into an area well covered by Pakistani air defenses, which then hit Wing Commander Varthaman’s plane with a surface-to-air missile.

Wing Commander Varthaman, the son of a veteran combat pilot, seemed self-confident throughout the recorded interrogation sessions. He answered some questions, without appearing nervous, and then refused to answer others, like what his mission was, saying: “I’m sorry, sir. That’s all I’m supposed to tell you.”

Asked in a 2011 television documentary what it took to be a fighter pilot, he said, “Bad attitude!”

In one of the videos from this week, he is seen drinking tea and looking relaxed.

“I hope you’ve been treated well with us?” a Pakistani officer asks in English.

“Yes,” Mr. Varthaman says. “I have, and I would like to put this on record and I will not change my statement if I go back to my country also. The officers of the Pakistani Army have looked after me very well. They are thorough gentlemen.”

“This is what I would expect my army to behave as,” he adds. “Am very impressed by the Pakistani Army.”

NYT > World

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