First signs of hope for hostages held in Kashmir

TIM MCGIRK

Srinagar

For the first time since five Western tourists were kidnapped by Kashmiri rebels in the Himalayas six weeks ago, Indian negotiators are expressing guarded optimism that the surviving hostages may soon be freed.

Powerful radios have been given to the Al-Faran rebels through an emissary which reportedly allows the Indians and foreign diplomats to speak directly to the kidnappers - believed to be hiding in the mountain forests. It is hoped that this direct channel of communication will allow diplomats to verify that the two Britons - Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting, and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham - along with a German and American are still alive. A Norwegian hostage was earlier killed by the rebels.

Officially, India insists it will not bend to Al-Faran's demands that 15 Kashmiri rebel commanders be allowed to walk free from Indian prisons. But it seems possible that India might be willing to cut a deal. Police sources in Srinagar claim that two prisoners high on Al-Faran's list have been moved out of the high-security Tihar jail in New Delhi closer to Kashmir.

The two commanders, Azhar Masood and Nasrullah Largyal, are thought to be mujahedin - Islamic warriors - from Pakistan and Afghanistan who considered the Muslim uprising in Indian Kashmir to be a Holy War. Both men are founders of Harakat-Ul-Ansar, an extremist Kashmir group which last year captured two Britons but later released them unharmed.

The authorities claim that Harakat-Ul-Ansar have ties with military intelligence in Pakistan, India's enemy neighbour which also covers Kashmir.A third rebel commander as yet unidentified may also be traded for the captive tourists.

Indian officials caution that no release of the four tourists is expected soon. Most likely, they said, negotiations could drag on for several days or even weeks, as Al-Faran and the government work out details of a safe passage so that the Al-Faran rebels and the freed commanders can escape to safety across the mountain border to Pakistan.

The glimmer of a first breakthrough in talks between the Indian and the 17 Al-Faran gunmen came after an emissary from the rebels on Sunday reportedly held face-to-face talks with an Indian negotiator. Several hours later, the Kashmir state governor, General Krishna Rao, publicly said that India preferrred a diplomatic solution to save the hostages. "The government has no plan to launch a military operation to secure the release of the four abducted tourists," he said in a statement.

The Foreign Office declined to comment. But Anti-terrorist experts from Scotland, and possibly the SAS, along with the FBI and German police are now in Kashmir, advising Indian security forces on the hostage crisis.

Julie Mangan, wife of hostage Keith, and Catherine Moseley, girlfriend of the other British captive, Mr Wells, are anxiously waiting news of further progress in the negotiations while they are being cared for by British diplomats in New Delhi.

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