Last hope for hostages as time runs out

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A glimmer of hope emerged last night for four western hostages threatened with execution today by Kashmiri rebels. In a last attempt to save the lives of the two Britons, an American and a German, Indian officials told the rebels they were ready to release several jailed Kashmiri separatist commanders.

The threat to execute the captives came pinned to the headless body of a fifth hostage, a Norwegian student, Hans Ostro, discovered on Sunday not far from the Pahalgam region of southern Kashmir where the trekkers were seized by the "Al-Faran" rebels over a month ago.

When doctors in Srinagar stripped the student's body, they found hidden in his underwear several scraps of paper covered with writing in Norwegian. One of the notes contained a last message for his family, which was passed on to his parents and sister in New Delhi yesterday. There were also a few lines of poetry, and a plaintive entry from his diary - possibly the last - which Mr Ostro must have scrawled quickly while his captors were distracted. "I am dying, dying. There is nothing to eat and nothing to live for," it said.

One source who saw the various messages said, measuring his words carefully: "The picture that emerges is of someone who was depressed, unwell. It is possible that he might have died of illness or while trying to escape, and the captors decided to make use of his corpse to scare the authorities. Anything that might rule out the possibility of cold-blooded murder could help to reduce our anxiety over the situation. But all we know about these kidnappers is that they are not rational people."

In New Delhi, the Indian Home Secretary met intelligence chiefs, the British High Commissioner, Sir Nicholas Fenn, and the US, German and Norwegian ambassadors. "The government is in constant touch with the kidnappers and every effort is being made to ensure the safety and security of the hostages," a home ministry spokesman said. In Srinagar, the Kashmiri state capital, Indian negotiators reportedly told the captors that the government was prepared to set free "a few militants".

The Al-Faran rebels are, however, demanding the release of 15 top rebel commanders from Indian jails. It is doubtful that India will agree to release them all. As one source close to the negotiations said, "Many of the militants on Al-Faran's list have a long record of killings. The Indians won't let them all go."

The two British hostages are Keith Mangan, 33, a Tooting electrician, and Paul Wells, 23, a Nottingham student. The others are Donald Hutchings, an American, and Dirk Hasert from Germany. Julie Mangan, wife of Keith, and Catherine Moseley, girlfriend of Mr Wells, are in the British High Commission compound in New Delhi and, following advice from diplomats, are refusing to comment on the Norwegian's death.

Al-Faran's response to the Indians' last-minute offer is unknown. However, the kidnappers are under extreme pressure from other Kashmiri militant groups to let the westerners go. Maulvi Omar Farooq, a Muslim spiritual leader and chairman of the influential Al-Hurriet council, made up of clergymen and militants, yesterday called for a general strike in Kashmir tomorrow in protest at the Norwegian's killing.

Beauty and danger, page 3

Hostage crisis


July 4 - Al-Faran kidnaps Americans John Childs and Donald Hutchings and Britons Keith Mangan and Paul Wells

July 8 - German Dirk Hasert and Norwegian Hans Christian Ostro are kidnapped. Childs escapes and is rescued.

July 15 - Kidnappers extend by two days deadline for India to free 21 jailed rebels.

July 17 - Deadline expires. Al-Faran threatens to kill hostages at any time.

July 21 - Al-Faran issues statement saying two hostages wounded during a gunfight between militants and Indian soldiers.

Aug 5 - Al-Faran releases pictures of Hutchings and Mangan swathed in bandages. Rebels say they only require release of 15 jailed militants.

Aug 13 - Ostro's decapitated body is found.