Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said Thursday his government would return a captured Indian air force pilot whose jet was shot down over Kashmir as a “peace gesture” between the nuclear-armed rivals.
"We have an Indian pilot. As a peace gesture we will release him tomorrow," Khan told parliament in the capital, Islamabad.
“Pakistan wants peace, but it should not be treated as our weakness... The region will prosper if there is peace and stability. It is good for both sides.”
Pakistan’s detention of the pilot, shot down in a dogfight Wednesday, had further inflamed tensions in the most serious standoff between the neighbors in years.
India had demanded the return of the pilot, who was attacked by a Pakistani mob after being shot down, before being paraded, bloodied and blindfolded, on a video circulated by Pakistan’s Information Ministry.
India reacted furiously to the footage, which experts said contravened the Geneva Convention, describing it as a “vulgar display of an injured personnel.” Pakistan responded that the captured pilot was being treated "as per norms of military ethics.”
The announcement of the pilot’s impending release is the most significant sign so far of a potential de-escalation in tensions, which have been ratcheting closer to war since an attack claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group killed 40 Indian officers on Feb. 14. On Tuesday, India carried out air raids over Pakistani territory, its first in nearly 50 years, and on Wednesday, Pakistan responded in kind.
Asad Ali, senior analyst at IHS Markit, told VICE News that Khan's statement had widened the scope for de-escalation, leaving "the ball very much in India’s court in terms of further military action."
Backing down from the brink
Ahead of Khan’s announcement, U.S. President Donald Trump hinted in Hanoi Thursday that he had received "reasonably decent news" on the crisis, although he didn’t divulge what that was.
"They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop," he said. "We have been in the middle trying to help them both out. And we have some reasonably decent news, hopefully that's going to be coming to an end.”
In other signs pointing towards a possible de-escalation, Pakistan said Thursday it had received a dossier of information from India regarding the suicide bombing in the disputed region of Kashmir that had set off the current tensions. India claimed it contained details of the camps of the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, that carried out the suicide attack in Pulwama, Kashmir.
On social media, there was also a slight shift in tenor from the overwhelmingly jingoistic mood in recent days, with citizens of both countries calling for their leaders to show restraint, using the hashtag #SayNoToWar.
Are clashes ongoing?
Nevertheless, tensions remain perilously high, with both sides exchanging gunfire along the Line of Control that divides Kashmir throughout the night and into Thursday morning.
Pakistan’s military told CNN four of its civilians had been killed and two injured in cross-border fire from India, and said it had fired back in response to India’s "deliberate firing on civilians." India accused Pakistan of initiating the attacks.
While the Indian government has also said it intends to act with restraint, the messaging from leading figures in India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party prior to Khan’s announcement, was bellicose. Prime Minister Narendra Modi warning that “India’s enemies are conspiring to create instability in the country through terror attacks,” and vowed he wouldn’t do “anything that allows our enemy to raise a finger at us.”
His comments came after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley floated at a news conference Wednesday that Indian special forces should carry out a raid to take out Islamist militant leaders in Pakistan, in the same way the United States took out Osama bin Laden in 2011.
“I remember when U.S. Navy Seals went to Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden, then why can’t India?” he asked. “This used to be only an imagination, a wish, a frustration and disappointment. But it’s possible today.”
Khan appealed in a televised address for dialogue between the countries to cool the situation, but he said Thursday that he had been unable to reach Modi by phone Wednesday night. He also said that he had feared that India was preparing to launch a missile attack, but that the situation had been averted.
Ali said Modi's comments had given no indication that he was willing to engage in talks. "In fact, just today he referred to the initial Indian airstrike in Pakistani territory as 'practice'," he said.
"It could be that these comments are just for domestic consumption, but one of Modi’s key characteristics has been an unwillingness to back down."
What role is the international community playing?
World powers, including the U.S. and China, are playing an active role in attempting to mediate the situation and encourage both sides to show restraint. Khan said Thursday that the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was also due to visit Pakistan with an urgent message from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Ali said foreign mediation would be essential to de-escalating the situation, due to the high levels of domestic pressure on both sides not to back down to their bitter rivals. "They have the potential to broker a deal that de-escalates the situation in way that the Indian and Pakistani governments can successfully sell to their respective populations as wins," he said.
India is due to hold general elections in May, where an upsurge in nationalism would be expected to benefit Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP. B.S. Yeddyurappa, BJP head in Karnataka state, said Wednesday that India’s airstrikes in Pakistan had created a “pro-Modi wave” that would help the party pick up seats in the upcoming elections. Meanwhile Khan, a former cricket star, is a populist facing his biggest foreign policy test since he was elected last year.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they became independent in 1947, two of which have been over disputed Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The mountainous region is divided, but claimed in its entirety by both countries.
Cover image: Indian government forces and Indian military forces gather near the debris of crashed Indian Air Force plane on February 27, 2019 in Budgam west of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, India. (Kabli Yawar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)