Kashmir hostages 'are still alive'

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The Independent Online
Four Western tourists who have been held hostage by Muslim militants in Kashmir for nearly six months are alive and were seen by villagers in South Kashmir two days before Christmas, according to police sources in the Indian-controlled territory.

The four, including two Britons, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, were spotted wearing Kashmiri robes at the village of Hakura Bursgam in the southern Anantnag district on 23 December. "They were in good health. This is good news, as we were concerned about their fate," a police source said. "We heaved a sigh of relief."

Fears for the safety of the hostages, who were captured by the Al-Faran militant group while hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas, rose after a gun battle on 4 December in which four leading members of Al-Faran, including its chief commander, Abdul Hamid Turki, were killed by Indian forces. Al-Faran later claimed that three of the tourists were "taken away" by the Indian army and that the fourth was "missing".

For most of the past six months the Indian authorities have been aware of the general whereabouts of the Western hostages, but have avoided any rescue attempt that might have resulted in their deaths. The Indians admit that Al-Faran managed to smuggle the captives away after the gun battle. Last weekend's sighting was the first confirmation that they were still alive. Police sources said that strict instructions had been issued to the security forces not to engage the abductors in any further encounters.

The police sources added that a new band of heavily-armed Al-Faran members, led by a foreign militant named Mohammad Ali, is now guarding the four tourists. The group has hi-tech field radio sets, but is much smaller than before; more than 100 captors had previously accompanied the hostages, but villagers saw only 30 to 40 at Hakura Bursgam.

The seizure of foreign hostages has divided the militants fighting New Delhi's control of Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India. Mainstream groups have called on Al-Faran, a previously little-known movement which India claims is controlled and financed by Pakistan, to free the four Westerners.

"Al-Faran is becoming isolated from other groups in Kashmir over the continued captivity of the four tourists," said one official. "We have reports that they want to release them unharmed soon. We will redouble our efforts to seek their early release."

Other sources admitted, however, that despite its best efforts, the government has failed to establish direct or indirect contact with Al-Faran. During the last negotiations, the abductors demanded the release of 15 jailed militants, including two senior commanders held in a New Delhi jail, but the Indian government refuses to make any concessions.

British, American and German diplomats waiting in Srinagar have had no recent contact with Al-Faran, according to officials. "They tried through various influential locals, but without success," said one diplomat. "We have no information about the Christmas gifts and greeting cards sent to the tourists. We had lost track of them. But now the good news is that they are safe, and still with Al-Faran."