Pakistan has handed back an Indian pilot who has become the face of the worst military crisis between the two countries in decades in a gesture aimed at demonstrating its willingness to de-escalate the conflict.
He parachuted out over enemy territory. Fired in the air to keep back angry locals. Jumped into a pond and then destroyed documents by eating them.
That's what Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, an Indian fighter jet pilot, reportedly did after his plane crashed in Pakistan territory on Wednesday. He also may have helped defuse one of the worst crises between the two nuclear armed neighbors in decades.
Pakistan handed the pilot over to Indian authorities late Friday night. Under bright floodlights amid a heavy security presence, Varthaman crossed into India on foot at the Wagah border crossing in the state of Punjab.
Varthaman's plane was hit in the first aerial dogfight between India and Pakistan in nearly 50 years. He was subsequently captured by the Pakistani military in a particularly dramatic development to an already volatile conflict.
Experts said Varthaman, a 38-year-old from the city of Chennai, would undergo a detailed debrief and medical check upon his return.
Indians have watched every twist and turn in Varthaman's saga this week. An alleged video of his initial capture shows him being dragged from the crash site as enraged locals attempt to hit him. A Pakistani soldier is heard asking people to stop.
A second, more controversial video that may run afoul of Geneva Conventions was tweeted by Pakistan's Information Ministry. The clip showed the blindfolded pilot with a bloodied face, answering questions calmly while in Pakistani custody.
The footage was widely circulated on WhatsApp and social media and broadcast nationally in both countries, including on India's stridently nationalistic evening talk shows.
Pakistan appeared to seize on Varthaman's potential to be a circuit breaker in the conflict by the evening, releasing a video showing the detainee drinking chai, saying he was being treated well and lauding his captors as “thorough gentlemen”. “The tea is fantastic,” he added.
India had lodged an official complaint about the “vulgar display” of the prisoner in the videos and demand his immediate return without conditions.
Kashmir, a Himalayan region the two countries claim in full but rule in part, has been the trigger for three India-Pakistan wars since 1947. The pair regularly trade mortar fire over the heavily guarded line of control separating the two armies including on Friday as Varthaman was being repatriated.
Even as India and Pakistan traded charges over the last two days, Varthaman's behavior in captivity united people from both sides of the border, mostly in praise. Videos of his capture and questioning were shared by thousands on social media. Pakistani citizens joined the chorus asking their government to return Varthaman as a gesture of peace.
This is not the first time that an Indian pilot has been taken hostage by Pakistan. In 1999, the rivals fought a brief but intense conflict high in the Himalayas. In that clash, known as the Kargil conflict, India deployed fighter jets but Pakistan did not.
During the fighting, an Indian fighter pilot named Kambampati Nachiketa was captured by Pakistani forces after his plane crashed. Nachiketa said he was tortured during his eight days of captivity, after which he was released.
In the war of 1971, when the two countries fought over the liberation of Bangladesh, India had taken over 90,000 prisoners of war including many security personnel. They were repatriated to Pakistan after an agreement between the two countries the following year.