Freed Britons tell of fear and forced marches

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THE TWO Britons kidnapped by Kashmiri guerrillas on 6 June were freed yesterday after spending 17 days on a harrowing trek through the Himalayas.

Thin, and wearing clothes their abductors had laundered for them that morning, Kim Housego, 16, and David Mackie, 36, from London, were taken to a forest in Anantnag in southern Kashmir and handed over to journalists. 'The top man said, 'You're free to go'. That was it. I was in a state of shock. I couldn't believe it,' Mr Mackie told me in his first conversation with a Western journalist since his release.

Fearing pursuit by the Indian army, the band of kidnappers, armed with guns and grenades, kept the hostages marching, often at night, along the treacherous peaks of the Pahalgam range and across icy rivers.

Kim and Mr Mackie were taken from a group of foreign tourists herded together by 20 militants along a well-known trekking route. Kim was snatched from his parents, David and Jenny Housego, and Mr Mackie from his new wife, Cathy. His face blistered by the intense high-altitude glare and his voice trembling, Kim described his ordeal: 'It was scary but they never pointed a gun at me. I never thought they were going to shoot us.'

On their first day as hostages, Kim and Mr Mackie - who had an injured knee - hiked with their abductors non-stop for 16 hours. Kim said: 'The night marches were the worst. We crossed rivers and went through ice and snow and over boulders.'

The abductors, Kashmiri Muslims who belong to a secessionist organisation known as Harakat-al-Ansar, were convinced on the second day that the Indian army was hunting them down. Mr Mackie said they 'grew very agitated. They felt the army were closing in. They made us cross over an enormous mountain. There was lightning, avalanches, everything. Even the guide didn't want to do it.'

Kim added: 'An avalanche came down the mountain right next to us. We had to traverse across a snowy ledge and I felt sure it was going to break off under our weight.' Escape was unthinkable. Mr Mackie's leg injury meant he could not run. And their captors treated them well. 'We ate rice, too much rice, and goat,' Mr Mackie said.

Kim's father, David Housego, a former Financial Times journalist in south Asia, was able to secure a promise from the Indian army to call off its dangerous hunt for the Britons.

When they were taken to a journalist's house in Srinagar yesterday, they did not seem sure if they were free or not because of the chaos. No policemen were around. Mr Mackie's confusion vanished when his wife burst in and they kissed shyly. 'It's incredible to be free,' Kim said. His mother, Jenny, hugged him, trying to hide her tears.

Long trek to freedom, page 12