An Indian pilot captured in Pakistan is set to receive a hero's welcome when he is released today in a 'peace gesture' intended to defuse military tensions between the nuclear-armed nations.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who has become the face of the latest Kashmir crisis, will be handed back to Indian officials at the Wagah border crossing on Friday afternoon.
The airman's capture by Pakistani forces - after his plane was shot down on Wednesday - sparked a fresh crisis over the Himalayan province and prompted pleas from world leaders to step back from the brink of war.
Yesterday Pakistan's PM Imran Khan announced his release as a 'peace gesture' but warned his country was 'prepared for any eventuality and response', as shelling continued across the disputed border last night.
Hero's welcome: People wave an Indian flag and carry a huge garland as they gather at the border crossing on Friday morning and wait to welcome Abhinandan Varthaman home from Pakistan
Bring him home: People shout patriotic slogans before the arrival of the Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured by Pakistan on Wednesday at the height of the tensions over the disputed Kashmir province
Standing guard: Indian police near the border with Pakistan at Wagah on Friday, where the pilot at the centre of this week's military and diplomatic crisis is being handed over in a bid to defuse tensions
Face of the crisis: Captured pilot Abhinandan Varthaman pictured in Pakistani custody on Wednesday. Pakistan's PM Imran Khan announced yesterday that the airman would be released on Friday as a 'peace gesture'
By Friday lunchtime thousands of Indians had gathered at the border crossing, singing and waving flags as they prepared to welcome the pilot home.
Abhinandan's parents were given a standing ovation by fellow passengers as they boarded a flight to Amritsar near the Wagah border crossing to welcome their son.
The highly symbolic Wagah crossing point, where the handover is due to take place, is famed for hosting colourful rival ceremonies by Indian and Pakistani soldiers each day at sundown.
Patriotic spectators fill stadium-style stands on each side to cheer as goosestepping troops bring down their national flags in elaborate, competing performances.
A ceasefire line divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, but both claim the Himalayan region in its entirety.
Today a group of schoolchildren brandished a painting of the pilot, along with placards reading: 'Hope for peace between India & Pakistan' and 'Thank you Imran Khan'.
However Indian forces remain on a 'heightened' state of alert despite Pakistan's promise to free the pilot, military chiefs said on Thursday.
Both governments had faced domestic pressure not to cave in, as anti-India protesters in Pakistan waved their country's flag and told their military: 'Move forward, the nation is with you'.
Some Indian politicians also called for more aggression including 'secret missions' to target suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
Turnout: Indians hold national flags and shout slogans as they wait to welcome their pilot back at the border crossing
Hero: Indian people hold placards and photographs of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, as they celebrate the announcement of his impending release at a demonstration in Amritsar on Thursday
Line-up: Indian policemen stand guard as they prepare to receive the Indian pilot the Wagah border crossing on Friday
Prepared: Indian policemen and media wait for the return of the Indian pilot at the India-Pakistan border at Wagah today
A map showing the military clout of Pakistan (left) and India (right) and the volatile disputed region of Kashmir to the north and Jammu and Kashmir to the south
Damage: Villagers in Kalal in India's Jammu region examine what they claim is wreckage from a Pakistani mortar shell today
Captured: Photos shared on social media purport to show the moment when one of the Indian Air Force pilots is arrested in Pakistani Kashmir
Rally: Pakistanis wave their national flag in a protest against India in Quetta on Thursday amid rising tensions between them. Pakistan's PM Imran Khan has appealed for caution given the 'nature of the weapons that we have'
Evidence: Indian Air Force officials display wreckage of AMRAAM air-to-air missile that they say was fired by Pakistan Air Force fighter jet during a strike over Kashmir
WHY IS THIS TENSION SO DANGEROUS?
Both India and Pakistan are believed to possess more than 100 nuclear warheads each and have conducted atomic weapon tests. Both countries have test-fired nuclear-capable missiles. Pakistan also has refused to renounce a first-strike option with its atomic bombs should it feel outgunned in a conventional war. It takes less than four minutes for a missile fired from Pakistan to reach India. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists warns that 'computer models have predicted that the physical impacts of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, or even a single strike on a large city, would be devastating . and would reverberate throughout the world.'
HOW DID THE DISPUTE OVER KASHMIR BEGIN?
When Britain granted independence to the region in 1947, it