Pakistan considering returning captured Indian pilot, as Trump hints at de-escalation

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan said on Thursday that it was considering returning a captured Indian pilot, as U.S. President Donald Trump said American mediation was helping to defuse a crisis between the two nuclear powers a day after both downed enemy jets.

The pilot, identified by Islamabad as Wing Commander Abhi Nandan, became the human face of the latest flare-up following the release of videos showing him being captured and later held in custody.

“We are willing to return the captured Indian pilot if it leads to de-escalation,” Qureshi told Geo TV.

Qureshi also said the Saudi foreign minister was expected to visit Pakistan with a special message from Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who visited both Pakistan and India earlier this month.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has already called for talks with India to prevent the risk of a “miscalculation” between their nuclear-armed militaries.

The Pakistani foreign minister’s remarks came shortly after Trump said he expected “reasonably decent news” regarding the conflict between India and Pakistan.

The U.S., China and other world powers have urged restraint from the two nations as tensions escalate following tit-for-tat airstrikes in the wake of a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire along the contested border in Kashmir on Thursday, but speaking at a press conference, Trump said the U.S. had been mediating between the two sides.

“They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop,” Trump said in Hanoi, where he was attending a summit with North Korea’s leader.

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

Earlier on Thursday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months, told a rally of supporters that India would unite against its enemies.

“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,” he said, in his first remarks since the downing of planes on Wednesday.

FIRING CONTINUES

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1947, two over Kashmir, and went to the brink of a fourth in 2002 after a Pakistani militant attack on India’s parliament.

Pakistan has shut its airspace, forcing commercial airlines to reroute. Thai Airways International announced on Thursday that it had canceled flights to Pakistan and Europe, which left thousands of passengers stranded in Bangkok.

As Trump was speaking, India said that Pakistan had fired mortars into Indian-occupied territory at around 1 p.m. (0730 GMT).

Troops from India and Pakistan also exchanged fire for over an hour in the Poonch district at 6 a.m., according to a statement from the Indian army.

“The Indian army retaliated strongly and effectively,” said Lieutenant Colonel Devender Anand, a defense ministry spokesman.

The firing was significantly less elevated than the artillery fire exchanged by the two sides on Wednesday.

Pakistan said the firing began overnight.

“The firing continued in intervals throughout the night. It was moderate,” said Shaukat Yusufzai, an administration official in the Pakistan-controlled part of Poonch.

One man was hospitalized after being hit by shrapnel, he added.

India is building more than 14,000 bunkers for families in Jammu and Kashmir state living close to the border, hoping to keep them safe near their homes rather than evacuate them.

On Wednesday evening India’s foreign ministry handed a dossier to Pakistan that it claimed detailed camps of the Paskistan-based militant group that carried out the Feb 14 attack.

Demonstrators hold placards and shout slogans during a protest demanding the release of an Indian Air Force pilot after he was captured by Pakistan, in Kolkata, India, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

With a general election due in India by May, an upsurge in nationalism from any conflict with Pakistan could become a key factor, potentially favoring Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Late on Wednesday B.S. Yeddyurappa, a BJP leader in the southern state of Karnataka, said India’s strike inside Pakistani territory would help the party to win back power in the state – the first such comment from a member of the ruling party.

“This has brought a pro-Modi wave all through the country,” he told reporters. “The effect of this will be seen in the elections.”

INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

The latest escalation marks a sudden deterioration in relations between the two countries. As recently as November, Pakistan’s leader Khan spoke of “mending ties” with India.

The White House urged “both sides to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement he had spoken separately with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan and urged them to “prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity”.

Pakistan’s envoy to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, said Islamabad would like to see the Trump administration play a more active role in easing the crisis.

At the same time, he said the lack of U.S. condemnation of India’s strike on Pakistan was “construed and understood as an endorsement of the Indian position, and that is what emboldened them even more”.

China, the European Union and other countries also called for restraint. Japan’s foreign minister said on Thursday the country was concerned about the “deteriorating situation”.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, spoke by telephone with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and expressed “deep concern”, China’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

The United States, Britain and France proposed the United Nations Security Council blacklist Masood Azhar, the head of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 attack. China is likely to be oppose the move.

Slideshow (15 Images)

FLIGHTS CANCELED

Thai Airways said it had canceled more than a dozen flights to Europe due to Pakistan’s move, along with all flights to and from the country.

Several airlines including Emirates and Qatar Airways, suspended flights to Pakistan on Wednesday, while others such as Singapore Airlines and British Airways were forced to reroute flights.

Singapore Airlines said on Thursday all of its Europe-bound flights would continue as planned, avoiding the affected airspace as necessary.

Flights from the Middle East and India were also affected. Air Canada said on Wednesday it has temporarily suspended service to India.

Reporting by Alasdair Pal, Fayaz Bukhari and Abu Arqam Naqash, additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Michelle Nicholls; Editing by Michael Perry and Simon Cameron-Moore

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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