Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman pilot
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman

New Delhi: An IAF pilot was in Pakistani custody and a Pakistani fighter jet was shot down on Wednesday as fears of war darkened India-Pakistan relations with the Air Force repulsing retaliatory attacks from the western neighbour.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said war was futile, leading to unknown consequences while making an oblique reference to the nuclear weapons that both countries possess while not committing, expectedly, to ending Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism and its use as an instrument of state policy.

The Pakistan Army retracted its earlier statement that two Indian Air Force pilots were arrested and in the evening said it had “only one” pilot in its custody.

“There is only one pilot under Pakistan Army’s custody. Wing Comd Abhi Nandan is being treated as per norms of military ethics,” Pakistani military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor said in the evening. IAF sources identified him as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

A day after India bombed Jaish-e-Mohammed’s biggest training camp in Pakistan, it was a morning of developments moving with dizzying rapidity.

Islamabad claimed it hit back at India by bringing down two Indian military aircraft, one of which crashed in Pakistan occupied Kashmir while the other fell in Jammu and Kashmir. Officials here said a Pakistani Air Force F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Indian air defence forces in Jammu region’s Rajouri sector.

It turned out later that Pakistan was aiming at the Indian Army brigade headquarters. However, intimidated by the IAF, it beat a hasty retreat, dropping payloads on an empty stretch in the Naushera sector of Jammu and Kashmir.

During the encounter that followed with Indian Mirage 2000s and MiG 21 Bisons, a MiG-21 Bison was lost and the pilot went missing. Before that, however, the IAF was successful in shooting down a Pakistani F-16, the wreckage of which fell in PoK.

As tension mounted, the entire airspace north of New Delhi was briefly “vacated”. Nine airports in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab were closed for civilian traffic for some part of the morning but opened later in the day.

Jammu and Kashmir was the centre of much of the action on a day of escalating tensions between the two neighbours.

An IAF helicopter crashed in Budgam in Kashmir, killing at least five people. One of the deceased persons was identified as Kifayat Hussain Ganaie, a local resident, while the identity of other four — believed to be IAF personnel — is being ascertained, they said.

There was no direct established link with the activity by Pakistani jets, but for many it was just a sign of the disturbed times.

There was also nightlong heavy firing and shelling on forward and civilian areas from across the LoC in Rajouri and Poonch with the Army and the Border Security Force being put on the highest degree of alertness.

All residents of the border areas were asked to remain inside their homes and not venture outside.

While the government and the defence establishment took stock of the situation, building up since the February 14 attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in which 40 soldiers were killed, attention swivelled on the IAF pilot in enemy territory.

In a terse press statement, External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar, accompanied by Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, said details are being ascertained about Pakistan’s claim of having captured one Indian pilot.

It was later confirmed that he was in Pakistani custody.

Officials said Pakistani fighter jets violated Indian air space in Jammu region’s Poonch and Rajouri sectors but were pushed back by Indian aircraft. The jets dropped bombs while returning but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage, they said.

“Pakistan has responded this morning by using its Air Force to target military installations on the Indian side. Due to our high state of readiness and alertness, Pakistan’s attempts were foiled successfully,” Kumar said.

He said the Pakistan Air Force activity was detected and the Indian Air Force responded instantly.

“In that aerial engagement, one Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft was shot down by a MiG 21 Bison of the Indian Air Force. The Pakistani aircraft was seen by ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side.

“In this engagement, we have unfortunately lost one MiG 21. The pilot is missing in action. Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts,” he said.

In Islamabad, the Pakistan Army released a 46-second video showing a blindfolded man claiming he is Abhinandan.

“I am an IAF officer. My service No is 27981,” the man is seen as saying in the video.

The veracity of the video could not be ascertained.

Till late afternoon, India’s political leaders, both in government and in the opposition, were mostly quiet.

In a live television broadcast, Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan also reiterated the military’s claim that two Indian MIGs were shot down, as he offered to defuse tensions and resolve the issues through talks.

He said the Pakistani incursion into the Indian air space was “only intended to convey that if you can come into our country, we can do the same.”

Two Indian MiGs were shot down in the ensuing action, Khan said, one day after Indian government sources said up to 350 JeM terrorists were killed in Tuesday’s attack. There was no official confirmation of the claim.

“I ask India: with the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation? If this (situation) escalates, it will no longer be in my control or in (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi’s,” Khan said.