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Pakistan Says It's Holding Indian Pilot After Jet Shot Down In Cross-Border Airstrike

Feb 27, 2019
Originally published on February 28, 2019 11:29 am

Updated at 4:53 p.m. ET

In a dramatic escalation of violence over their shared Himalayan border, India and Pakistan both claimed Wednesday to have shot down each other's fighter jets, and video emerged of a bloodied, blindfolded Indian pilot in Pakistani custody.

Both countries accused the other of invading rival airspace. India confirmed the loss of one of its MiG-21 fighter jets in an "engagement" with Pakistani forces and acknowledged its pilot was missing.

The air incursions follow a Feb. 14 suicide car-bomb attack in Kashmir that killed some 40 Indian troops. Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based militant group, claimed responsibility.

On Tuesday, India responded with an airstrike on what it described as a militant training camp inside Pakistan, saying it had killed "a large number of terrorists." However, Islamabad disputed the claim, saying that while India's warplanes had entered Pakistani airspace, they were forced to drop their bombs in an empty field after Pakistan air force jets were scrambled to intercept them.

In video circulating on social media in both countries, a blindfolded man with a bloodied face identifies himself in English as Wing Commander "Abhinandan," and the camera pans to an Indian air force logo on his jacket. He reads aloud his military identification number and asks his captors if he is in the custody of the Pakistani army. NPR could not independently verify the video.

In another clip airing in Pakistani media, the pilot's blindfold is removed. He sips tea and says he's being treated well by the Pakistani military, calling his captors "thorough gentlemen." He refuses to answer questions about his hometown and exact job.

A spokesman for Pakistan's military also tweeted a photo of the same man in the tea clip, identifying him as "Abhi Nandan" and saying that he "is being treated as per the norms of military ethics." He also clarified that Pakistan was holding one pilot, not two, as it previously said.

In a text message sent to foreign correspondents in India, a spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs called the videos "vulgar" and suggested they violate "all norms of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention." It said that India had summoned the acting high commissioner of Pakistan — the equivalent of an ambassador – to the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi to lodge a "strong protest" against the day's events.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said his country had offered to "cooperate" with India following the Feb. 14 attack.

"It is not in Pakistan's interest to let our land be used for terrorism. There is no dispute there," Khan said. "Yet, I had still feared that India would [ignore the offer and] still take action, and I had therefore warned India against aggression and said we will be compelled to respond because no sovereign country can allow that [violation of its sovereignty]."

A Pakistani military official said its air force shot down two Indian planes.

In a statement from Pakistan's Foreign Ministry released on Wednesday, officials said the air force "undertook strikes" across the unofficial demarcation that divides Kashmir between Indian and Pakistani areas of control.

The statement said that Pakistan had sought to "avoid human loss and collateral damage" and had conducted the strikes with the "[s]ole purpose being to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self defence."

We have no intention of escalation but are fully prepared to do so if forced into that paradigm," the statement said, adding that India's earlier strike had been aimed at "so-called terrorist backers without a shred of evidence."

Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, told reporters in Washington Wednesday that the U.S. didn't condemn the Indian airstrike, and that was "construed and understood as an endorsement of the Indian position, and that is what emboldened them even more."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan moved closer to war today. Both claimed to have shot down the other's fighter jets. India says one of its air force pilots is missing, and Pakistan says it captured him alive. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in northern India and joins us now. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Explain what happened today.

FRAYER: So Pakistan says it conducted airstrikes along the India border. It also says it shot down two Indian aircraft that entered its airspace. It says it captured one of the pilots. And a spokesman for Pakistan's military even tweeted out a photo of this pilot. India gives a slightly different set of events. It accuses Pakistani planes of entering its airspace, but it does confirm that one of its jets was shot down and that a pilot is missing. And video has emerged of a man that we think may be that pilot. And here's what it sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WING COMMANDER ABHINANDAN VARTHAMAN: Yeah, my name is Wing Commander Abhinandan. My service number is 27981. I'm a flying pilot. My religion...

FRAYER: So you can hear a commotion there. Somebody's phone is ringing in the background. The man is blindfolded. His face is bloody. He identifies himself as a wing commander in the Indian Air Force. He calls his captor sir. He's very polite. He asks if he is in the custody of the Pakistani Army. Now, there's also another video clip. We can't verify the authenticity of these. But there's another clip that's airing on Pakistani media in which the man's blindfold is off and he's sipping tea and says he's been treated very well. Meanwhile, India has called these videos vulgar and suggests they may even violate the Geneva Convention.

SHAPIRO: Lauren, this is a pretty scary escalation along a border that has been tense for years. Why is this suddenly happening right now?

FRAYER: In an address to his nation, Pakistan's prime minister, Imran Khan, explained it. He says Pakistan is retaliating for Indian airstrikes yesterday. Now, India says it launched airstrikes and killed a very large number of terrorists at a training camp inside Pakistan yesterday. The training camp, it says, was run by a banned militant group. And here's what Imran Khan said today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER IMRAN KHAN: (Speaking Urdu).

FRAYER: There he is speaking in Urdu, and he says, "the sole purpose of Pakistan's actions today was to convey this message." Essentially, if you come into our country, we're going to do the same. So he says he's retaliating for Indian actions. But he did also offer talks with India. Now, the problem is India also says it's retaliating against Pakistani actions. And it really depends on how far back you want to go. Two weeks ago, there was a suicide car bomb in Kashmir. That's a disputed territory that's split between the two countries. That bombing killed 40 Indian troops. A Pakistan-based militant group claimed responsibility.

SHAPIRO: OK, so this cycle seems to be escalating, but some version of this has been going on for the better part of seven decades, right? So how do they avoid this blowing up into all-out war?

FRAYER: That's a really good question. The conflict does go all the way back to independence from Britain in 1947. And at partition, Pakistan was carved out of the Muslim-majority areas of India. But the one exception was Kashmir, and that's this disputed Himalayan territory that's currently split between the two countries. It's a Muslim-majority area. But back in 1947, the local ruler at the time was a Hindu who joined India. And so the two countries India and Pakistan have basically been fighting over Kashmir ever since. They've fought three wars. We hope this is not leading into a fourth.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in northern India. Thank you, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.