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Pakistan returns Indian pilot in 'peace gesture'

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Wagah (India) (AFP)

A pilot shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft returned to India on Friday, after being freed in what Islamabad called a "peace gesture" following the biggest standoff between the two countries in years.

But fresh violence raged in Kashmir, with seven people killed in the Indian-administered part of the tinder-box territory, suggesting that the spike in tension sparked by the death of 40 Indian soldiers in a suicide bombing last month may not be over yet.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, shot down on Wednesday over Kashmir -- divided between the nuclear-armed rivals since 1947 -- crossed into India at the famed Wagah crossing point, sporting a black eye from his ordeal.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said that the pilot was "treated with dignity and in line with international law," and that his release was "aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India".

Thousands of Indians, waving flags, singing and dancing with patriotic fervour, had gathered at the crossing point on Friday afternoon but the crowd dwindled after his release was delayed inexplicably by hours. Others also danced and shouted slogans in New Delhi.

In India the experienced pilot's release was seen as a diplomatic victory, but New Delhi warned that its military remained on "heightened" alert.

On Thursday and Friday both countries continued to fire barrages across the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border dividing Kashmir, with a mortar shell killing one woman.

Gun battles on the Indian side left two militants and four members of the Indian security services dead, while a civilian was killed in later protests, police told AFP.

"Influence of terrorists and terrorism has been curtailed and it is going to be curtailed even more. This is a New India," Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing a tough election due by May, said Friday.

"This is an India that will return the damage done by terrorists with interest," he said.

After the pilot's release he tweeted: "The nation is proud of your exemplary courage... Hail to the motherland!"

India's junior foreign minister and former army chief, Vijay Kumar Singh, tweeted that the "welcome" release of the pilot was "the first of many steps that #Pakistan must take to reinforce their commitment to peace".

- Suicide bombing -

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule. Both claim it in full and have fought two wars over the Himalayan territory.

India has half a million troops in the part it administers, with militants -- backed by Islamabad, according to New Delhi -- fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died since a revolt that broke out in 1989. Last year was the deadliest in a decade with almost 600 killed, monitors say, sparking anger among locals.

"Poor people are getting killed and their homes are destroyed... We need peace," Nagina Bano, one of 300 locals who attended the funeral on Friday for the woman killed in the cross-border bombardment, told AFP.

Tensions escalated alarmingly after the February 14 suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir, with the attack claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group.

Twelve days later Indian warplanes launched a strike inside undisputed Pakistani territory, claiming to have hit a militant camp.

An infuriated Islamabad denied casualties or damage, but a day later launched its own incursion across the LoC.

That sparked the dogfight which ended in both countries claiming they had shot down each other's warplanes, and Abhinandan's capture.

The tensions prompted Pakistan to close down its airspace, disrupting major routes between Europe and South Asia and grounding thousands of travellers worldwide. Its major airports reopened on Friday.

- Standing ovation -

The parents of handlebar-moustached Abhinandan were given a standing ovation by fellow passengers as they boarded a flight to Amritsar near Wagah to welcome their son.

He has become a national hero after purported footage that went viral showed him being beaten by locals after being shot down before Pakistani soldiers intervened, with social media abuzz with #GivebackAbhinandan and #Abhinandanmyhero hashtags.

His subsequent polite refusal to proffer more details than necessary -- "I am sorry major, I am not supposed to tell you this" -- won him particular sympathy in India.

His father, a retired air force officer, told the Times of India newspaper, "Just look at the way he talked so bravely... a true soldier... we are proud of him."

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