Fears for Britons as troops comb jungle

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The Independent Online
WILL BENNETT

Indonesia yesterday moved hundreds of commandos into the area where four British biologists have been kidnapped by separatist rebels as fears rose that any military confrontation could put the captives' lives at risk.

Troops from the Indonesian army's special forces arrived in the Irian Jaya region of New Guinea to try to stop the guerrillas of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), which is fighting for independence, from taking their prisoners into neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

The four Britons, a Dutch couple, a German and 17 Indonesians were seized in the mountain village of Mapenduma on Monday. They had been working on research projects in a remote jungle area which is home to one of the world's last Stone Age cultures.

The Cambridge graduates Daniel Start, 21, from London; Bill Oates, 22, from Jedburgh in the Scottish borders; Anna McIvor, 21, from Bournemouth, and Annette van der Kolk, 21, from Fleet , in Hampshire, were researching plant and animal life as part of a programme to turn the area into a protected national forest.

Brigadier General Suwarno Adiwijoyo, spokesman for the Indonesian army, said that he believed that there was little chance that the rebels would get through the thick jungle to the border, 240 miles from where they captured the hostages.

Greg Roberts, an Australian journalist in New Guinea, said yesterday that the OPM had announced that the hostages were well but that they could not guarantee their safety if Indonesian troops moved in.

"Until recently non- combatants were left alone by the OPM but two recent kidnappings and apparent killings of Indonesians do tend to indicate a major change in direction by the OPM," he said.

But David Marfleet, of the Mission Aviation Fellowship, who spent nine years as a pilot supplying mission stations in Irian Jaya, said he did not believe the Britons were in danger. He added: "My feeling is that [the OPM] are trying to make an international statement to get publicity for their cause."

A Foreign Office spokesman said that two British diplomats had flown to Irian Jaya, where they had spoken to missionaries and local officials. From there one had travelled to the area where the hostages were seized to try to get more information. After a Foreign Office briefing for the hostages' families in London yesterday Caroline Miller, Mr Start's mother, said: "They earnestly wanted to help the local people through their conservation project. This was always their purpose. They are completely innocent. We wish to see them again soon, safe and well. We are very concerned for their welfare."

t Indian police in the southern city of Bangalore are still hunting for the killer of a 30-year-old British traveller who was stabbed to death on Tuesday. Police said the victim's 25-year-old British fiancee was also raped that same evening by a rickshaw driver.

The city's deputy police commissioner, Prabir Sood, said that the body of the man, who came from Oxfordshire, was found on Wednesday in a sack thrown into a ditch outside the city. "It was a strange and unfortunate coincidence. There seems to be absolutely no connection between these two terrible events," he said.

However, a spokesman for the British High Commission in New Delhi, said: "We're still awaiting the full police report. Coincidences do happen. But the odds against these two things occurring without connection are very high."

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