Kashmiris will kill hostages 'any time now'

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The Independent Online
TIM McGIRK, New Delhi and MUKHTAR AHMED Srinagar

Kashmiri rebels threatened to start killing their five Western hostages, including two Britons, at "any time from now", after a breakdown in talks with Indian authorities yesterday.

In a communique released in Srinagar, capital of India's troubled state of Kashmir, the Al-Faran kidnappers said: "We contacted the Indian government three days back but they're not interested in meaningful talks for securing the safe release of hostages."

They have been holding two Britons - Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting, South London, and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham - as well as an American, a German, and a Norwegian, since 4 July.

A deadline set by the kidnappers for India to release 21 jailed Kashmiri militant commanders expired yesterday evening. "There will be no extension of the deadline," said the kidnappers' note. "The hostages will be killed any time from now."

The hostages yesterday made a frantic tape-recorded appeal for help to India and their governments. In the recording the five told their partners they were well but feared for their lives.

"I am well," American Donald Hutchings said in a recorded message obtained by Reuters news agency. "I don't know if I'll be killed today or tomorrow."

Paul Wells said in the message: "I was captured 10 days ago. We are very tired," he said. "The Indian government does not seem to be sorting out the situation."

Senior officials in Srinagar and New Delhi expressed hope that the Westerners might still be released safely. "These are pressure tactics," said one Srinagar official. The official claimed that although India publicly has refused to bend to the hostages demands, it is "definitely considering" a one-to-one exchange, in which a jailed militant commander would be released for one of the hostages.

"These are innocent tourists. We want their safety," said one police officer. However, the kidnappers are demanding that India set all 21 commanders free.

But there was a glimmer of hope in the latest note. Al-Faran, one of dozens of Kashmiri militant groups fighting Indian rule in this Himalayan state, again appealed to the international community "to pressurise India to concede to Al-Faran's demands". Indian police said Al-Faran might wait several days to see if Britain, the US and other Western governments, along with human rights groups, launch an appeal to India.

Meanwhile, police reportedly think they know the rough location where the hostages are being hidden, after studying the last photograph of them with their masked captors. Dozens of police are searching the thickly forested Doda district of Kashmir, which is some 40 miles across and includes 15,000-foot peaks, from where the Westerners were first seized.