Pakistan to release captured Indian fighter pilot whose jet was shot down

An Indian fighter jet pilot captured by Pakistan after his plane was shot down will be released in about 24 hours "as a peace gesture".

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the pilot will be handed over to India on Friday following tit-for-tat air strikes between the nuclear powers.

Amid escalating tensions and fears of a new war, the cricketer-turned-politician told lawmakers in Islamabad: "We have an Indian pilot. As a peace gesture we will be releasing him tomorrow."

Earlier, Mr Khan had said that Pakistan was ready to free the pilot if it would de-escalate the crisis and he wanted to hold talks with India’s prime minister.

Footage shows the pilot – named as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman – being beaten with fists and bloodied by a mob as he was captured in Pakistan after his jet was shot down on Wednesday.

India had demanded that the pilot – who was paraded on video by Pakistan’s army – be released and returned.

In his speech to parliament, Mr Khan said Pakistan wants peace and stability in the region, but warned that it would be forced to retaliate if India acted aggressively.

He said he had unsuccessfully attempted to make contact with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi "to say that we don’t want escalation".

He added: "Our push for de-escalation doesn’t mean we are afraid."

Mr Modi, who faces a general election in May, earlier told a rally of supporters that India would unite against its enemies.

He said: "The world is observing our collective will. It is necessary that we shouldn’t do anything that allows our enemy to raise a finger at us."

In addition to air strikes, the two countries have been exchanging shellfire along the Line of Conflict (LoC) in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

India is building more than 14,000 bunkers, which are suitable for families, along the border with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir state.

World powers have urged restraint as tensions escalate following tit-for-tat air strikes this week after a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on February 14.

US President Donald Trump hinted at de-escalation on Thursday when he said he hoped the conflict between India and Pakistan will be coming to an end.

Speaking in Hanoi, Vietnam, after holding a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump said he had some "reasonably decent" news from India and Pakistan.

But he did not elaborate.

He told reporters: "They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop.

"We have been in the middle trying to help them both out."

Mr Khan said he would speak to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ask him to help to ease tensions.

Russia said it was prepared to act as a mediator and Saudi Arabia was sending its foreign minister to the region to press for calm.

"If they want this, then of course," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Meanwhile, the conflict has caused chaos for tens of thousands of airline passengers after Pakistan closed its airspace and airports, and India shut some northern airports.

Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority reopened its airspace to some commercial flights on Thursday.

Pakistan’s army, meanwhile, was searching on Thursday for British climber Tom Ballard and fellow mountaineer Daniele Nardi, from Italy, on a treacherous peak known as "Killer Mountain".

The pair were scaling the 8,126-metre (26,660-ft) Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas.

Ballard is the son of famed British climber Alison Hargreaves, who became the first woman to climb Mount Everest unaided in 1995 but died that year while descending from a summit of Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain.

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