By Islamuddin Sajid and Muhammed Semih Ugurlu
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AA) – Pakistan on Thursday celebrated "Surprise Day" to honor its air force which countered Indian strikes last year.
On Wednesday, ahead of the celebrations, a group of Pakistan-based local and foreign media journalists for the first time visited the area in Pakistan administered Kashmir where the air force downed an Indian aircraft last year near the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border dividing the disputed Kashmir valley.
The Pakistani army, which organized the trip, allowed journalists to talk to locals and its personnel in Barho, Samahni sector, a border village in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, located around over 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the capital Islamabad.
On Feb. 27 last year, warplanes from both sides engaged in a dogfight along the border of disputed Kashmir. Pakistan downed an Indian aircraft and arrested its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman along the de facto Kashmir border.
But a day later on Feb. 28, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced his release as a goodwill gesture.
"I was in my village when I heard a huge blast, and then I saw an aircraft in flames downing near our village," said Mehbob Hussain, a local resident of Barho.
"When we saw an Indian flag on his chest, some locals started to beat him but then Pakistani army soldiers also arrived and rescued him," Hussain told local reporters, recalling the day.
The Pakistani army has now installed a pole in the area with signs to guide the tourists visiting, showing the location of "pilot surrender area" where the Indian MIG-21 was downed.
"We arrived here very fast as our observation post was pretty close. When we arrived, I saw that a group of locals surrounded the pilot. After we rescued him, we took him to our unit's hospital for initial treatment," Lance Naik Mohammad Ikram, an officer of the army told reporters.
The sector commander who earlier briefed the visiting journalists praised his soldiers who evacuated the Indian pilot, and said it was not an easy task.
"There was a sentiment, locals were very much charged, and I think we were very lucky, the Indian pilot was also very lucky that the teams of the Pakistani army were able to reach [Abhinandan] in time," said the sector commander, on the condition of anonymity.
"Had it been a delay of about half an hour, I'm not sure in what condition we would have received the pilot," he added.
The Barho area, where the Indian pilot landed, is located around 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) from LoC.
– Dogfight between Pakistani, Indian air forces
On Feb. 26 last year, Indian jets had intruded into Pakistan's airspace and later New Delhi claimed that “several terrorists” were killed in a “preemptive action” on a camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a group that had been listed as a terrorist organization by Islamabad in 2002. But Pakistan rejected the claim and said only some trees were damaged by an Indian bomb.
On Feb. 27, 2019, air forces of the countries engaged in a dogfight over Kashmir border and claimed to have downed each other's fighter jets.
On the same day, an Indian helicopter was also shot downed in Kashmir on Indian side, killed all six air force officials on board, when India and Pakistan were engaged in a short aerial battle.
"The helicopter was shot down by an Indian missile in a friendly fire when Indian air defenses were on high alert following the Feb. 26 Balakot airstrike that targeted a terrorist camp in Pakistan," India Today, a local daily, quoted the government sources as saying last year.
Last year in August, India awarded the highest gallantry award of Indian army to Abhinandan for downing Pakistani jet during an aerial combat.
On Monday, for the first time, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) displayed all four missiles that recovered from the Abhinandan’s fighter jet, and rejected the Indian claim that they shot down Pakistani F-16 fighter aircraft.
"India has given a gallantry award to Abhinandan for what he never did. He was [rather] captured by Pakistani forces and India didn't hit our F-16," Air Commodore Syed Ahmer Raza, the director of media affairs, and spokesperson of PAF, told reporters in Islamabad.
Pakistani officials also question that although the event happened a year ago, India has not yet presented a proof showing that New Delhi had shot down the Pakistani F-16 fighter jet.
– Kashmir dispute
Jammu and Kashmir is held by India and Pakistan in parts and claimed by both in full. A small sliver of Kashmir is also held by China.
Since they were partitioned in 1947, the two countries have fought three wars — in 1948, 1965 and 1971. Two of them were over Kashmir.
Some Kashmiri groups in Jammu and Kashmir have been fighting against Indian rule for independence or unification with neighboring Pakistan.
According to several human rights organizations, thousands of people have reportedly been killed in the conflict in the region since 1989.