After a suspenseful wait lasting hours, Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman has returned home from captivity in Pakistan on Friday, a major step towards defusing a near-war situation triggered by India’s retaliation over Pakistan’s continued support for terrorism.

Hoping to give a hero’s welcome to Wing Commander Varthaman, thousands of Indians gathered on the border carrying the tricolour and garlands since morning. But as the day wore on and night fell there was no sign of the pilot, who was captured on February 27 by Pakistan following a fight between the two air forces in which his MIG-21 was shot down.

He finally emerged at 9.10 p.m. India time at the Wagah checkpost on the Pakistani side, accompanied by Pakistani rangers, the Indian air attache posted in the High Commission in Islamabad. He was wearing a civilian clothes- a dark jacket and khakhi trousers, walking proudly toward the gates that separated his captors’ country from his homeland.

“Wing Commander Abhinandan has just been handed over to us. He will be taken now for a detailed medical checkup. This check up is mandatory as he had to eject from an airplane which would have put his entire body under stress,” said Vice Chief Marshal R G K Kapoor to reporters in a brief statement in Attari, near Amritstar.

Addressing a public rally in Tamil Nadu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “every Indian is proud of brave pilot Abhinandan.”

Several political leaders, including Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee welcome the IAF hero back home.

India-Pakistan tension

Tensions between India and Pakistan flared up when 40 CRPF personnel were killed and many injured on February 14 in one of the deadliest terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir when a Jaish-e-Mohammed suicide bomber rammed a vehicle carrying over 100 kg of explosives into their bus in Pulwama district..

Amid mounting outrage, Indian Air Force carried out a counter-terror operation, hitting what it said was JeM training camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan on February 26. The next day, Pakistan retaliated with a large air formation, comprising 24 fighter jets, including F-16s.

Varthaman was in one of the eight MIG-21s that took on the invader and shot down an F-16, according to officials. During the fight, his plane was hit and he bailed out, landing on the other side, where he was taken into custody by the Pakistani army.

On Thursday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told in a special joint sitting of Parliament that his government was releasing the pilot as a “peace gesture”. However, India has been maintaining that Pakistani decision is in consonance with the Geneva Conventions.

After the pilot’s release, the Pakistan Foreign Office described him as a Prisoner of War.