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Kashmir kidnap gang threaten to behead Britons

Three Britons have been kidnapped in India by a Muslim extremist group which has threatened to ``behead them, one by one'' unless the Indian government lets 10 jailed Kashmiri militants go. A fourth captive, an American, was rescued yesterday by police who found him chained inside a deserted house in a New Delhi suburb.

Identical parcels arrived at the New Delhi offices of the BBC and the Voice of America yesterday containing a letter from an unknown group identifying itself as Al-Hadid, based ``in the Afghan tribal areas'', demanding the immediate release of 10 guerrillas captured by Indian security forces in Kashmir. To prove they were holding the Britons, the kidnappers included photocopies of their passports and two photographs taken of the tourists with masked men aiming guns in their faces.

Later police in New Delhi said they had shot and wounded a kidnap suspect after keeping watch on the house where the American was held.

The Foreign Office confirmed the identities of the three Britons as Miles Croston, 28, from Amersham, Bucks, Paul Ridout, 26, from Verwood, Dorset, and Rhys Partridge, 27, from Martlesham, Suffolk. Mr Partridge has Australian dual citizenship.

The Foreign Office said it was concerned for the safety of the three Britons, despite the precedent set by the kidnap and release without harm of David Mackie and Kim Housego in Kashmir in June.

Mr Croston and Mr Ridout were travelling together when they were kidnapped. John Croston, Miles's father, said: ``They were going through India and they had plans to go to Australia eventually.''

Mr Partridge, who was also travelling to Australia, flew to India on 24 September and planned to travel to Bangkok for Christmas. After arriving in New Delhi he wrote to his mother, Pamela Partridge, to say how much he was enjoying it. Yesterday she said: ``I just pray he finds the inner strength to cope with this ordeal.''

Security forces believe that the kidnappers belong to one of the extremist Afghan guerrilla outfits that have crossed the Himalayas to join Muslim militants in a holy war in Indian-administered Kashmir.