Indian Army hunts for Britons kidnapped by Islamic militants

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Indian Army search parties spread out into the high Himalayan valleys of Kashmir yesterday hunting for two Britons and two Americans who were kidnapped three days ago by Islamic gunmen.

Lieutenant-General D D Saklani, a senior official in the troubled Indian- administered state of Kashmir, said that "a massive search operation had been launched to trace the abducted tourists".

The two British hostages were identified as Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, and the two Americans were Donald Hutchings and John Childs.

A previously unknown Muslim militant group called Al-Faran claimed responsibility and is demanding the release of 21 militant commanders from Indian prisons. "This is an act of cowardice intended to harass innocent tourists," Lt-Gen Saklani said.

Despite warnings from the Foreign Office not to visit Kashmir, where Muslim militants are in revolt against Indian rulers, its legendary beauty continues to attract foreigners. But more than 10,000 people have died since 1989 when the uprising began. A year ago, two British trekkers were kidnapped from the same Himalayan valley of Pahalgam but were released after 17 days.

The latest ill-fated party had just climbed down from a glacier when a band of 15 gunmen invaded their camp site.

Ghulam Nabih, one of the guides, told the Independent: "One of the British ladies in the group was lying on the grass in her shorts, and a militant shouted at her saying this is not the way a woman should be dressed." The captors spoke only Urdu, not the Kashmir dialect, which led some Indian officials to believe that the gunmen were "mercenaries" from Pakistan and Afghanistan, who are aiding the Kashmiri militants.

In the group were two British couples, an American and his wife, and two single men, a Canadian and American, who were all rounded up by the gunmen.

Before leaving, the gang leader handed a note, demanding the release of the Muslim militant commanders, to one woman. He said: "Don't give this to anybody but your ambassador in New Delhi." The four captives were marched out of the camp. A Canadian man said he was too ill to move and the militants left him with the women. The next morning the remaining party walked to the nearest village of Pahalgam and alerted police.

Last night both men's parents were waiting for news.

"It is difficult to know what to do when this is happening so far away - you feel so powerless," said Mr Mangan's mother, Mavis.