NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will return a captured pilot “as a peace gesture” to India, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Thursday, amid efforts by the United States to defuse a crisis between the two nuclear powers a day after both downed jets.
The pilot, identified by Islamabad as Wing Commander Abhi Nandan, became the human face of the latest flare-up following the release of videos showing him being captured and later held in custody.
Khan said the pilot would be released on Friday, even as his military reported that four Pakistani civilians had been killed by Indian firing across the border in Kashmir.
“As a peace gesture we will be releasing him tomorrow,” Khan told parliament.
Khan’s decision came after several other countries offered diplomatic assistance to de-escalate the confrontation between two countries.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said his counterpart from Saudi Arabia was expected to visit Pakistan with a special message from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who visited both Pakistan and India earlier this month.
Khan has already called for talks with India to prevent the risk of a “miscalculation” between their nuclear-armed militaries.
Earlier, US President Trump said he expected “reasonably decent news” regarding the conflict between India and Pakistan, adding that the United States was trying to mediate.
“They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop,” Trump said in Hanoi, where he was attending a summit with North Korea’s leader.
“We have been in the middle trying to help them both out.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also offered to facilitate talks between the two sides.
The US, China, European Union and other world powers have urged restraint from the two nations. Both countries downed enemy jets on Wednesday, and each accused the other of breaching cease fire agreements on Thursday.
Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire along the contested border in Kashmir on at least three occasions on Thursday, with the firing instigated by Pakistan every time, according to New Delhi.
Pakistan’s military said four civilians had been killed and two wounded in what it called a “deliberate” attack by India during the past 48 hours.
Earlier on Thursday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months, told a rally of supporters that India would unite against its enemies.
As a precaution amid the increased military activity, Pakistan has shut its airspace, forcing commercial airlines to reroute.
Troops from India and Pakistan first exchanged fire on Thursday in the Poonch district for over and hour at 6 am, according to a statement from the Indian army. “The Indian army retaliated strongly and effectively,” said Lieutenant Colonel Devender Anand, a defence ministry spokesman.
Pakistan said the firing began overnight.
“The firing continued in intervals throughout the night. It was moderate,” said Shaukat Yusufzai, an administration official in the Pakistan-controlled part of Poonch.
The latest escalation marks a sudden deterioration in relations between the two countries. As recently as November, Pakistan’s leader Khan spoke of “mending ties” with India.
The White House urged “both sides to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement he had spoken separately with the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers and had urged them to “prioritise direct communication and avoid further military activity”.
The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, spoke by telephone with Pakistan’s foreign minister and expressed “deep concern”. — Reuters