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By Associated Press
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan handed over a captured Indian pilot Friday while blistering cross-border attacks across the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir continued for a fourth straight day, even as the two nuclear-armed neighbors seek to defuse their most serious confrontation in two decades.
Tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers face off along the Kashmir boundary known as the Line of Control, in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
On the Indian side of Pakistan’s border crossing at Wagah, turbaned Indian policemen lined the road Friday before the pilot’s handover. A group of cheering Indians waved their country’s national flag and held up a huge garland of flowers to welcome him back.
Tensions have been running high since Indian aircraft crossed into Pakistan Tuesday carrying out what India called a pre-emptive strike against militants blamed for a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian troops. Pakistan retaliated, shooting down two Indian aircraft Wednesday and capturing a pilot.
Since the escalation, world leaders have scrambled to head off an all-out war on the Asian subcontinent. President Donald trump in Hanoi on Thursday said he had been involved in seeking to de-escalate the conflict.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told lawmakers Thursday, “We are releasing the Indian pilot as a goodwill gesture tomorrow.”
But India made it clear that the latest escalation has changed its strategy and that going forward, it will strike, including inside Pakistan, if it gets information of an attack in the planning. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier Thursday warned “India’s enemies are conspiring to create instability in the country through terror attacks.”
Khan also said he had feared Wednesday night that India might launch a missile attack, but the situation was later defused. He did not elaborate.
“Pakistan wants peace, but it should not be treated as our weakness,” Khan said. “The region will prosper if there is peace and stability. It is good for both sides.”
Residents of the Pakistani border town of Chikhoti reported heavy shelling overnight and Friday morning.
Kashmir has been divided but is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan. They have fought three wars, two directly over the disputed region.
This week’s violence marked the most serious escalation of the long-simmering conflict since 1999, when Pakistan’s military sent a ground force into Indian-controlled Kashmir at Kargil. That year also saw an Indian fighter jet shoot down a Pakistani naval aircraft, killing all 16 on board.