Pak to release IAF pilot after India says there will be no deal to secure his freedom

(Eds: Adding Modi's comments) Islamabad/New Delhi, Feb 28 (PTI) Pakistan announced Thursday that it will free captured IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman as a peace gesture, hours after a strong message from India demanded his unconditional release, largely de-escalating tensions between the two neighbours. At a joint media briefing in New Delhi, top officers of Indian Army, Air Force and Navy said the armed forces are on high alert for any security challenges, but refused to give any direct answers to questions on whether Pakistan's decision to release Varthaman could be seen as easing of tension. Separately, Prime Narendra Modi, in an apparent reference to India's February 26 pre-dawn air strikes on a terror camp in Pakistan, said a "pilot project" was recently carried out and now a "real one" has to be done.Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's surprise announcement to a joint session of Parliament that Varthaman will be released Friday, was greeted by loud thumping of desks by the lawmakers. His foreign minister said Khan was also willing to talk to Modi on phone to talk peace. However, India appeared in no mood to have talks with Pakistan, saying it first wants action from Islamabad on combatting terrorism. New Delhi had also made it clear that Varthaman cannot be a bargaining chip and demanded his unconditional and immediate repatriation. "In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow (Friday), and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody," Khan said. The IAF said it is very happy that Varthaman is returning home but dismissed suggestions it was a goodwill gesture and insisted it was in line with Geneva Conventions. "We are very happy Abhinandan will be freed tomorrow and look forward to his return," Air Vice Marshal R G K Kapoor, assistant chief of Air Staff, said. The pilot bailed out and landed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) after his MiG 21 was brought down during a fierce aerial engagement on Wednesday with Pakistan Air Force(PAF) fighters on the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, a day after India bombed terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed's (JeM) biggest training camp in Pakistan. Reports said that the wing commander shot down a Pakistan F-16 before being hit. As international pressure mounted on India and Pakistan to show restraint and deescalate tensions, US President Donald Trump said he has some "reasonably attractive news" from the two South Asian countries. "We have been involved in trying to help them (India and Pakistan) stop and we have some reasonably decent news," he said in his opening statement at a press conference at the end of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. "I think hopefully that (tensions) could be coming to an end, it has been going on for a long time," said Trump amid efforts by back-channel interlocutors considered close to the two countries to defuse Indo-Pak tensions that spiked after the Pulwama suicide attack by a JeM bomber on February 14 in which 40 CRPF jawans were killed. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir is visiting Islamabad with "an important message" from the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. In New Delhi, Saudi ambassador to India called on Modi, indicating that the country had some role in securing the pilot's release. The PAF on Wednesday carried out a retaliatory strike across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and attempted to target military installations, a day after India's strike on the JeM facility in Balakot. In Delhi, top government sources said India has not sought any consular access to Varthaman as his immediate release is "non-negotiable" and that the onus on deescalating tension between the two countries lies entirely on Islamabad. "We want him back unharmed, unconditionally and immediately. He is not a bargaining chip. There is no question of any deal with Pakistan on his return," a source added. Varthaman's father said he was proud of his son's bravery and thanked the people for their support and good wishes. In a statement, Air Marshal (retd) S Varthaman referred to a purported video of his son after his capture, and said he spoke like a "true soldier" despite being in captivity and that he was praying he would not get tortured in the neighbouring country and return home "safe and sound". On Khan's offer for talks, top government sources said Pakistan must first take "concrete and specific anti-terror steps". Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale briefed envoys of several countries including from China, France, Russia, the UK and the US on PAF targeting Indian military installations in an aggressive behaviour resulting in escalation in tensions. Sources said Khan has to walk the talk on investigating the Pulwama attack and that India wants immediate, credible and verifiable action against terrorists and their proxies. They said Pakistan was trying to mislead the international community while stilling whipping up war psychosis. Denouncing Pakistan's breach of the LoC, a source said their over 20 aircraft of their air force "specifically targeted Indian military facilities with a few crossing LoC, while we targeted only JeM terror camp". Pakistani army also shelled civilian areas and forward posts in six sectors along the LoC in Poonch and Rajouri districts Thursday in which one woman was killed and a jawan injured, drawing heavy retaliation from the Indian forces, an official said. PTI MPB MIN SH CPS PMS AKJ VJ GSN BJBJ