Hopes rise for hostages as deadline nears

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As the deadline loomed for Kashmir rebels to carry out their threat today to kill their five Western hostages, positive signs were emerging that the gunmen might not harm their captives.

A Kashmiri militant in Srinagar who is in contact with the Al-Faran kidnappers told the Independent: "Serious talks are going on within the group to extend the deadline for a few more days."

By late last night, the captors - who are demanding that India release 21 jailed rebel commanders in exchange for the two Britons, an American, a German, and a Norwegian - had still not reached a decision on whether to spare their hostages' lives. The kidnappers vowed to kill one or several of their captives tonight.

This militant source said Al-Faran's clandestine network of supporters in Srinagar and elsewhere in the Kashmir valley were in daily radio contact with the 15 gunmen holding the westerners. They are believed to be hiding in the impenetrable Himalayan ranges.

The Independent was told that several times yesterday, Al-Faran had tried unsuccessfully to contact Indian officials to negotiate their demands. Srinagar's telephone lines are notoriously poor, and when the rebels' spokesman finally got through to one senior official, his secretary hung up, believing the call to be a hoax. This reportedly happened three times.

After this setback, Indian authorities were trying frantically to open talks with the kidnappers. But officials in New Delhi emphasised that India refuses to set free the 21 captured rebel leaders, whom it considers "terrorists". Al-Faran and dozens of other Kashmiri rebel groups are leading a rebellion against Indian rule in which more than 10,000 people have died in the past six years.

A truce of sorts happened in Kashmir yesterday, as three police search teams - in Srinagar, Anantnag in southern Kashmir and in Pahalgam valley where the five westerners were captured while hiking - were ordered to establish contacts with the Kashmiri rebels. It is hoped some of the other separatist groups may put pressure on the little-known Al-Faran group.

Kashmiri rebels have taken hostages in the past but police said this was the first time they had no leads on the group that carried out the kidnapping. The hostages are Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting, Paul Wells, 23, a student in Nottingham, an American, Donald Hutchings, a German, Dirk Hasert, and a Norwegian, Hans Ostro. "What's worrying us is that we've had no contact with the militants," said one senior police officer. Diplomats are also reported to have had little success in contacting the kidnappers.

Hopes are being pinned on the Anantnag police superintendent, Amir Shah, who is respected by prominent Kashmirs and last year helped negotiate the release of two Britons also captured by rebels. After discreet talks, with influential Muslim clergymen acting as go- betweens for the police officer and the abductors, the two Britons, Kim Housego and David Mackie, were set free.