Imran Khan in the National Assembly of Pakistan in Islamabad. (Photograph: PTI)

Pakistan's Move to Free Pilot Not Enough to Reduce India Tension

(Bloomberg) -- An Indian Air Force pilot imprisoned by Pakistan may walk free on Friday, but it’s unclear whether his release will fully de-escalate a tense military stand-off between the two nations.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said he will release the pilot as a gesture of peace after a week that saw the two country’s fighter jets battling above the disputed region of Kashmir.

"We have captured a pilot of India -- as a gesture of peace we are going to release him to India tomorrow," said Khan. "I did try yesterday to talk to Narendra Modi only to de-escalate this situation. But this de-escalation effort should not be considered as weakness."

Pakistan's Move to Free Pilot Not Enough to Reduce India Tension

He told lawmakers in the country’s parliament he hoped the international community would play its part in reducing tensions with India.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after talking to the leaders of both nations, he was hopeful tensions would not continue to rise. Now "we can begin to have conversations that do not present risk of escalation to either of the two countries," he said.

Pakistan has found itself under significant international pressure, said Alyssa Ayres, a former U.S. diplomat and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

"There’s a high probability this is the step that de-escalates -- that said, you can also imagine some other plot twist, so I’m cautious about what to expect in the coming days," Ayres said by email.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi just weeks from an election and nationalist feelings running high, there is little incentive for New Delhi to back down on its demands.

India has called for the pilot’s immediate and safe return, an official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity citing rules. New Delhi insists it will not engage in talks with Islamabad unless the country takes "immediate and verifiable action" against terrorism. Pakistan has consistently denied it supports terrorist groups.

At a briefing in New Delhi late Thursday, India announced it had placed its military on a heightened state of readiness to respond to any provocation.

Kashmir Clash

Pakistan's Move to Free Pilot Not Enough to Reduce India Tension

Pakistan arrested the Indian pilot after aircraft from the two nations clashed in the disputed region of Kashmir in the worst military confrontation in decades.

"It should be no surprise that steps towards de-escalation are underway," Hasnain Malik, head of equity research at Exotix Capital in Dubai said by email. "The moment that the Pakistan military can walk away having demonstrated its defense capability and Modi’s BJP can walk away with an electoral boost then de-escalation starts. The move to return the captured Indian pilot may be a signal that this moment has been reached."

A day before Pakistan downed the Indian jet, the Indian Air Force said its jets launched airstrikes against terrorists inside Pakistan. The target was a camp run by Jaish-e-Mohammed which claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 suicide car bombing in Kashmir killing 40 members of India’s security forces.

India also shot down a Pakistani fighter plane on Wednesday, Kumar said. Indian ground troops saw the aircraft falling in Pakistani territory, he said. Pakistan’s military spokesman Asif Ghafoor, in turn, denied that the air force had lost a jet.

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