India welcomes Pakistan's 'peace gesture' to return pilot, but doesn't promise de-escalation
World leaders call on the 2 nuclear powers to de-escalate tensions
Indian military officials said on Thursday they welcomed Pakistan's planned return of a captured pilot, but refused to confirm they would de-escalate a conflict between the two nuclear powers.
The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan, became the human face of the flare-up over the contested region of Kashmir following the release of videos showing him being captured and later held in custody.
"We are happy our pilot is being released," said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, at a joint news conference of India's three armed forces Thursday evening. He did not say when asked by reporters if India considered the pilot's return a de-escalation in the conflict.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said earlier Thursday that the pilot, shot down and captured by Pakistani forces this week, will be released on Friday, as efforts to cool a crisis between the two nuclear-armed neighbours continued.
'A peace gesture'
"As a peace gesture, we will be releasing him tomorrow," Khan told lawmakers in both chambers of Parliament, which convened in Islamabad to discuss the latest situation amid rising tensions with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Khan did not say how India responded to his initiative. He also reiterated his offer for talks to New Delhi, saying this is the only way to solve all issues.
Khan also said he had feared Wednesday night that India might launch a missile attack, but the situation was later defused. He did not elaborate.
"Pakistan wants peace, but it should not be treated as our weakness," Khan said. "The region will prosper if there is peace and stability. It is good for both sides."
India's general election to be held by May
World powers have called on the countries to de-escalate the tensions gripping the contested region since a Feb. 14 suicide bombing killed over 40 Indian paramilitary troops in Indian-controlled Kashmir. India responded with a pre-dawn airstrike on Tuesday inside Pakistan, the first such raid since the two countries' 1971 war over territory that later became Bangladesh.
On Tuesday, India said it hit a training camp for a Pakistan-based group who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, and a senior government source told reporters that 300 militants had been killed.
India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said the strike killed "a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for action were eliminated."
Pakistan denies this, saying the attack was a failure and no one died, with bombs dropped on a largely empty hillside.
On Thursday, though, an Indian senior defence official appeared to backtrack on the claims. Asked about how much damage the warplanes had caused, Kapoor said it was "premature" to provide details about casualties. But he said the Indian armed forces had "fairly credible evidence" of the damage inflicted on the camp by the airstrikes.
I remember when U.S. Navy Seals went to Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden, then why can't India?- Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi
India's previous death toll estimates have been rubbished by Pakistan, which says the operation was a failure that saw Indian jets bomb a largely empty hillside without hurting anyone.
It isn't clear whether the discrepancy in claims will become a factor as Modi seeks a second term in India's general election, which must be held by May. There has been little sign as yet of the opposition pushing the government and the armed forces for more evidence of the mission's results.
On Thursday, India banned a Kashmir-based Islamist political party called Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) for five years on Thursday, accusing it of supporting militancy in the disputed region that is at the heart of an escalating conflict with rival Pakistan.
Created in 1942, JeI participated in Indian elections for more than two decades before becoming engaged with separatist politics following the onset of militancy in Kashmir in 1989.
It is the third ban to be imposed on the organization, which wants Kashmir to be independent from India.
Villagers flee amid fresh fighting
Fresh fighting erupted Thursday between Indian and Pakistani soldiers along the so-called Line of Control that divides the disputed Himalayan region between the two countries.
India's army says Pakistani soldiers are targeting nearly two dozen Indian forward points with mortar and gunfire.
Lt.-Col. Devender Anand, an Indian army spokesperson, says Pakistani troops later Thursday attacked forward posts along the Line of Control, calling it an "unprovoked" violation of the 2003 ceasefire accord.
He said Indian soldiers were responding to the ongoing Pakistani multiple attacks along the highly militarized de-facto frontier.
Pakistani soldiers also attacked Indian positions overnight, the army spokesperson said earlier, but described its intensity as "lesser" than previous nights. He said no casualties involving soldiers were reported so far in fighting since Wednesday night.
India and Pakistan routinely trade fire and blame the other for starting skirmishes along the frontier.
Government buildings in Muzafarabad, the capital of the Pakistan-controlled section of Kashmir, were used to provide shelter to those who fled from border towns.
Authorities in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir closed all schools and educational institutions in the region and are urged parents to keep their children at home amid mounting tension with neighbouring India. Pakistan's airspace remained closed for a second day Thursday, snarling air traffic.
Trump weighs in on tensions
World leaders weighing in on the tension included U.S. President Donald Trump, who began remarks at a news conference Thursday in Vietnam after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by focusing on India and Pakistan.
"Our defence forces are serving gallantly at the border," he told tens of thousands gathered across the country to listen to him in a video conference from New Delhi. "The country is facing challenging times and it will fight, live, work and win unitedly."
On Wednesday, India's Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, suggested at a news conference that Indian special forces carry out secret missions to capture terrorist leaders in Pakistan, invoking the 2011 U.S. Navy Seal operation to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
"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."
Just weeks before general elections are due in India, the head of Modi's party in India's Karnataka state, B.S. Yeddyurappa, said India's pre-dawn airstrikes in Pakistan on Tuesday would help the party at the polls.
With files from The Associated Press