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Pakistan to return captured Indian pilot 'as a peace gesture'

Decision comes after several countries offered diplomatic assistance to de-escalate the crisis

New Delhi

PAKISTAN will return a captured pilot "as a peace gesture" to India, Pakistan's Prime Minister, Imran Khan, said on Thursday, amid efforts by the United States 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. Mr Khan said the pilot would be released on Friday, even as his military reported that four Pakistani civilians had been killed by Indian firing across the disputed border in Kashmir.

"As a peace gesture we will be releasing him tomorrow," Mr Khan told parliament. Mr Khan's decision came after several other countries offered diplomatic assistance to de-escalate the confrontation between two countries that have almost went to war in 2002 for fourth time since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

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US President Donald Trump said on Thursday there would be some "reasonably decent news" on the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan while 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 briefly along the contested border in Kashmir on Thursday morning, but speaking at a press conference, Mr Trump said the US had been mediating between the two sides.

"They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop," Mr Trump said.

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

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for talks between the two nations.

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

Thai Airways International said it had cancelled flights to Pakistan and Europe, which left thousands of passengers stranded in Bangkok.

On Thursday morning troops from India and Pakistan briefly exchanged fire in Poonch, a district in Indian-occupied Kashmir, according to a statement from the Indian army.

"The Indian army retaliated strongly and effectively," said Lieutenant Colonel Devender Anand, a defence ministry spokesman.

The firing, that India claims was initiated by Pakistan and lasted for a little over an hour 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. Even now it's continuing," said Shaukat Yusufzai, an administration official in the Pakistan-controlled part of Poonch.

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 Pakistan-based militant group that carried out the Feb 14 attack.

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 Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). REUTERS