People shout slogans before the arrival of Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured by Pakistan on Wednesday, near Wagah border, on the outskirts of the northern city of Amritsar, India, March 1, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui)

AS PAKISTAN prepared to hand over captured Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman as a “peace gesture,” thousands today (1) gathered at the Wagah crossing point in north India to give him a hero’s welcome.

Thousands of people had crowded in early to get a glimpse of Abhinandan, clutching sweets and garlands as they waited for his return.

Wing Commander Varthaman has emerged as the face of the latest standoff between India and Pakistan and he is expected be returned at the Wagah border crossing between the two countries this afternoon, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said.

“As a gesture of peace and to de-escalate matters, the Indian pilot who is under arrest with us will be released today in the afternoon at the Wagah border,” he told lawmakers.

Varthaman’s parents were given a standing ovation by fellow passengers as they boarded a flight to Amritsar near the Wagah border crossing to welcome their son.

After Abhinandan was shot down on Wednesday (27) in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft, purported footage that went viral showed him being beaten by locals before Pakistani soldiers intervened.

The pilot shouted pro-India slogans, and after realising he was in enemy territory, attempted to flee, firing his pistol in the air to deter Pakistani villagers who were chasing him, eyewitnesses said.

“During that half a kilometre run, he fired some more gunshots in the air as well, to frighten the guys but to no avail,” said Muhammad Razzaq Chaudhry, 58, one of the eyewitnesses.

“Then he jumped into a small stream. Then, he realised that he could not escape, he took out some documents and maps from his uniform and tried to swallow some, tear apart and immerse the rest.”

A video released by the Pakistani military later showed Abhinandan sipping tea, his face swollen and sporting bruises, but otherwise collected and calm.

His polite refusal to proffer more details than necessary – “I am sorry major, I am not supposed to tell you this” – won him particular sympathy in India.

His father, a retired air force officer, told the Times of India newspaper, “Just look at the way he talked so bravely… a true soldier… we are proud of him.”

Social media has been abuzz with #GivebackAbhinandan and #Abhinandanmyhero hashtags elevating the pilot to national hero status.

Diplomatic sources said they expected Abhinandan to be handed over to India at around 3pm-4pm.

Abhinandan was captured a day after Indian fighter planes bombed what India said was a militant camp in Pakistan, in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Kashmir on February 14 that killed 40 paramilitaries.

(AFP, Reuters)