Kashmiri kidnappers yesterday gave India an extra 24 hours to release jailed separatists before they execute four Western hostages, raising hopes that a negotiated settlement to the crisis may be in sight.
In Srinagar, capital of Indian's troubled Himalayan state, officials claim privately that talks have progressed to the point where the Indians and the Al-Faran rebels are haggling over which prisoners will be freed in return for the tourists.
The hostages - Keith Mangan, 33, an electrician from Tooting, south London, Paul Wells, 23, a Nottingham student, Donald Hutchings from the United States, and a German, Dirk Hasert - were trekking near a Himalayan glacier when they were seized in early July by separatists. They had all ignored warnings from their governments to avoid Kashmir where more than 20,00 people have died during the six-year revolt against Indian security forces.
The brutal killing of the Norwegian hostage, Hans Ostro, may force the Indians to drop their earlier refusal to bargain with the Kashmiris after a contact on Monday between the Al-Faran captors and the Indian negotiator, Rajendra Tikku. One senior Indian official remarked glumly: "Either we release the militants or we collect the bodies of the foreigners."
The kidnappers have reportedly dropped their demand for 15 top rebel commanders to be freed. Now they are said to have cut the list down to five militants, all of whom allegedly led ambushes and gun attacks against Indian troops. India is reportedly trying to coax them to settle for five less dangerous militants.
Last night Indian security officials were gathered by a telephone in Srinagar awaiting the rebels ultimatum.
The headless corpse of Mr Ostro, a student, was found in woods in southern Kashmir on Sunday with a note from Al-Faran threatening to kill the other captives within two days unless India freed the 15 rebels. In New Delhi a post-mortem examination revealed that although he had been extremely ill, he was still alive when his throat was slit and then his head cut off.
Encouragingly, the mood in Kashmir has shifted against the kidnappers. Kashmiris now openly blame Al-Faran for twisting international opinion against the freedom struggle by killing the Norwegian. In Srinagar a call for a general strike in protest against the rebels is expected to be widely observed today.