Kashmir hostage families see end to nightmare

Families of the hostages kidnapped in Kashmir have been forced to endure desperate suffering as conflicting reports on the fate of their loved ones have emerged. Now, a body has been found and there may be an identification soon. Peter Popham in New Delhi reports.
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The Independent Online
The long nightmare of the wives and families of the hostages taken in Kashmir in July 1995 may be dragging to a close. Last Thursday, acting on a tip from a suspected member of Harkat-ul Ansar, a militant group implicated in the kidnapping, state police dug up a badly decomposed body in the village of Akingam, south of Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital. The body has now been flown to the Central Forensic Laboratory in Ahmedabad, in western India, for examination, according to the Delhi office of Reuters. It may be a week before it is positively identified. The Indian press has speculated, supposedly on the basis of height and hair colour, that it is the body of Paul Wells.

Saturday's edition of The Pioneer newspaper, however, said the body had already been flown to a laboratory in Hyderabad; whereas if you believe yesterday's Indian Express you would suppose that experts from New Delhi's Central Forensic Institute had themselves flown to Srinagar to identify the remains, and would probably be reporting as soon as Monday. Locals, meanwhile, were confident that the body was that of a Pakistani militant killed in 1995 by police. Such a confusion of reports must have made the past two years even more tormenting for the families involved.

Six male Western tourists were taken hostage in three separate incidents in July 1995: two British, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, two Americans, one German and a Norwegian. One of the Americans, John Childs, subsequently escaped. The group which claimed responsibility, Al Faran, demanded the release of 21 militants held by the Indian government.

Negotiations got nowhere, however, and the Norwegian hostage, Hans Christian Ostro, was beheaded and his body found beside a road on 13 August 1995. All contact with Al-Faran ceased in December 1995. According to a full account given by a captured militant called Nesir Mehmood in April 1996, all the remaining hostages were executed in December 1995 after the militants' leader was killed.

Until now, however, and despite a large reward for information offered by the US government, there has been no firm evidence to support this; indeed, the last theory to surface in the Indian press earlier this month had an Indian government team about to start negotiations with militants for the hostages' release. In the midst of such contradictions, any certainty, however grim, will be progress.