Murdered in Paradise

They went to Kashmir to see the lakes and the mountains. They fell into one of the bloodiest guerrilla wars in the world. Kidnapped last summer, the tourists were probably killed in December, as Tim McGirk and Shiraz Sidhva report
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Indy Lifestyle Online
An odyssey that has led the Indian police and army around the Himalayas, in their hunt for the four Western hostages missing since last July, may have ended not far from the high mountain valleys where the the hapless trekkers were first kidnapped.

Kashmir police and searchers are converging on the Himalayan resort town of Kokarnag to begin searching for the bodies of the Britons Keith Mangan and Paul Wells and the two other captives, Dirk Hasert, a German, and Donald Hutchings, an American.

Koranag is only several miles from the Pahalgam valley where the Westerners had been hiking with their wives and girlfriends last July when they were abducted. Tragically, it turned into a trek too far. Mangan, 33, was an electrician. He sold his business to spend a year travelling with his wife, Julie. Wells, 23, from Nottingham, was a photography student who travelled to Kashmir with his girlfriend.

Like many Britons, they were drawn by the magical beauty of a 120-mile- long valley bejewelled with lakes and surrounded on all sides by the ranges of the Himalayas and the Pir Panjals. It was when they took a houseboat in Srinagar, an ancient city of canals and lakes, that the two men's fate was decided.

The houseboat owner, Ghulam Nabih, persuade them that a trip trekking to Pahalgam, a steep mountain valley with forest of fir and birch cut through with waterfalls, would be safe and fun. Guides had been escorting Western trekkers up to the 12,000ft Kolahoi glacier for several weeks without encountering the Kashmiri rebels in revolt against India's rule.

In July last year, the Britons, two Americans, a German and a Norwegian were captured by a rebel group, believed to have been behind other ill- fated kidnappings. Early on in their ordeal, one of the Americans, John Childs, managed to escape by pretending that he had stomach trouble and needed to relieve himself in the bushes. For months there were sightings that kept hopes alive. Now it appears that they are dead, brutally executed by their captors.

A captured Islamic guerrilla chief who masterminded the tourists' kidnapping has confessed that the tourists were shot dead last December and secretly buried. Arrested by the Indian Border Security Force on May 7 in southern Kashmir, Nazir Mohammed broke down under interrogation and said that the remaining hostages were killed because they were slowing the escape of their Al-Faran captors fleeing from the Indian army through the icy Himalayas.

A senior Kashmir intelligence officer said: "Nazir broke down and was crying. The hostages' bodies were buried to give the militants time to flee. Otherwise, the army would have intensified operations in the area and caught them." Following Nazir's confession, police yesterday focussed their search for the bodies near the Himalayan village of Kokarnag. Digging has not yet begun for the corpses, according to police sources in Srinagar, but investigators are combing the wooded slopes around the village.

The captured militant claimed he did not witness the execution of the westerners but ordered Al-Faran to kill them "by remote control", meaning by radio communication. He was unclear of the day they were murdered, saying it was either the 13 December or 23 December, according to his interrogators.

Earlier, on 11 December, a communique from Al-Faran militants had alleged that the Indian army killed the hostages in a "skirmish". But, according to a senior intelligence official : "This was a just a prelude to the actual killing of the hostages." At the time, Indian officials confirmed that a clash had indeed occurred in which the Al-Faran leader, Al-Turki, died and several militants were captured. After the skirmish Al-Faran was running scared; the hostages fell victim to their panic.

A captured Al-Faran gunman has told the army that the abductors were tired and want to cross the border into safety in Pakistan. Heavy blizzards were falling in Kashmir in December and the hostages were slowing their flight from the pursuing troops. India has more than 300,000 troops and security force personnel in the valley. The well armed Muslim rebels have kept the Indian's pinned down for more than six years in an increasingly popular uprising against India rule. To date the Indian army has captured more than 1,700 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 150 rocket launchers, 1,000 anti-personnel mines and innumerable grenades. It was into this conflict that the hapless tourists.

With the winter and the Indian army closing in Mr Nazir ordered the hostages' killing. "He told them to shoot the hostages and bury them afterwards," said the Kashmir intelligence official. "He wasn't sure exactly where the abductors buried them. Only that it was somewhere near Kokarnag."

Indian authorities notified the British High Commission, along with the American and German embassies of Nazir's confession almost immediately after it was made earlier this month. They also informed the diplomats that since their captive was one of Al-Faran's leaders, his information was to be treated seriously. In other words, the hostages were almost certainly dead, even though their bodies had not yet been found.

The Foreign Office's handling of the news is likely to fuel criticism of the way it has mishandled the affair. According to Indian government officials the Foreign Office did not inform the families of the victims directly yet news of the confession leaked out to the tabloid Daily Express.

The Foreign Office's initial reaction to the kidnappings was also far from impressive. When news of the abductions broke a 31-year old diplomatic novice was dispatched to Srinagar to deal with the crisis. The families were told not to make too much of a fuss even though a kidnapping in 1994 had ended with the release of hostages after the father of one had led a campaign to get them released.

That kidnapping was followed by a second attempt to take Western hostages which ended with the kidnappers running from police who were infact stalking a nearby burglar. That fiasco for the Kashmiri rebels apparently persuaded them they needed to become more determined and ruthless. A senior Kashmiri intelligence officer claimed that Nazir had been sent across to Indian- held Kashmir with a mission: to either kidnap a prominent Indian official, "a VIP" or some tourists. Mr Nazir said he belonged to Harakat-ul-Ansar, one of the several large Kashmir guerrilla organisations who want the Muslim community of the region to unite with Pakistan.

Nazir set up a new group, one that nobody had ever heard of to distance itself from the earlier kidnappings, according to a senior Indian official.

Nazir told his Indian interrogators that a Norwegian captive, Hans Christian Ostro, was beheaded by Al-Faran in August last year "to build pressure". The kidnappers were demanding the release of 21 jailed Kashmir militants, including some commanders from Harakat-ul-Ansar, in exchange for the westerners' lives.

Throughout the hostage crisis, Britain, the US and Germany tried to apply pressure on the Pakistani premier, Benazir Bhutto, to use her influence so the hostages could be freed. Pakistan supports the six-year old Muslim uprising in the Indian-portion of Kashmir, in which over 20,000 people have been killed according to human rights groups. But according to Mr Nazir, the gunmen refused to listen to the Pakistani government's pleas; Al-Faran had turned renegade.

Diplomats do not rule out the possibility that a slim possibility exists that Mr Nazir might be lying to his Indian interrogators. Kashmir local police, gathering information from villagers, had reported occasional sightings of the hostages on and off since the last reliable spotting on 8 December. But as this senior intelligence officer insists, "We couldn't trust these reports. They all always spoke of 'men with their heads covered'."

Most ominously, after December, the radio messages between the Al-Faran captors and their supporters inside the Kashmir valley ceased abruptly. Since then, Indian forces have managed to kill or capture all but three or four of the original Al-Faran abductors. The others have escaped across the border to Pakistan.

When it became apparent to Al-Faran in November that India had no intention of releasing the jailed militants it wanted in exchange for the hostages, they broke off all talks. The murders of the four hostages followed in December. By the time the hostages' families had sent out Christmas presents intended for their missing relatives. But by that times Keith Mangan and Paul Wells were probably already dead.