US pressure on Bhutto 'saved Kashmir hostages'

TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

Intense, last-minute pressure by the White House on the Pakistani premier, Benazir Bhutto, managed to save four Western hostages, including two Britons, held in the Himalayas from being killed on Sunday by Kashmiri kidnappers.

All hope for the hostages - Britons Keith Mangan, 33, of Tooting, and Paul Wells, 23, of Nottingham, along with an American and a German - faded on Sunday when Indian intelligence picked up a radio command from Al-Faran rebel leaders, believed to be across the border in Pakistan, ordering the kidnappers to execute their captives and escape over the Himalayas, authorities in Srinagar said.

In the radio message, Al-Faran's commanders ordered the kidnappers not to kill the hostages until they heard a pre-arranged signal, according to Indian officials and other reliable sources. That was to be an Al-Faran communique aired by the BBC and Voice of America in which they vowed to execute their captives by 6am on Monday morning because of the Indian government's "stubborness" during negotiations.

Sure enough, a messenger from Al-Faran late on Sunday dropped off copies of the kidnapper's communique at the offices of Kashmiri journalists. Within minutes, and thankfully before either the BBC or the VOA could broadcast the code to kill, a caller from Al-Faran demanded that the journalists withdraw the communique, and so the murder of the four hostages was narrowly averted. An Indian official said, "the radio message was definitely a signal to kill them and run".

What caused Al-Faran to back down was "intense diplomatic pressure" put on Ms Bhutto. It also may have helped that the Kashmir state governor, General Krishna Rao, several hours after the radio intercept, publicly denied reports Indian was planning to mount a rescue raid on the rebel kidnappers.

Indian sources close to negotiations claim that this "intense diplomatic pressure" took the form a direct telephone call from the White House to Ms Bhutto. Although diplomatic sources in Washington confirmed yesterday that intelligence operatives had learnt of the existence of the message ordering the executions, the White House denied that President Clinton, who is on holiday, had called Ms Bhutto.

Officially, Pakistan has condemned the kidnappings and Al-Faran's execution of a Norwegian hostage. But the Americans reportedly urged the Pakistani premier to plead for the hostages lives through a close political contact of hers, Maulana Fazhul Rehman.

A fundamentalist Muslim clergyman and leader of the Jamat-ulema-Islami party, Maulana Rehman is known to have close ties with Kashmiri separatist groups, including Harakat-ul-Ansar. In New Delhi and Srinagar it is thought that Al-Faran may be a splinter group of Harakat-ul-Ansar. An Indian official said: "It was a direct consequence of pressure put on Benazir Bhutto that the hostages were saved."

Meanwhile, officials in London and in Washington were frantically trying to stop the story from being aired. A VOA correspondent said: "We were getting calls from the Assistant Secretary of State telling us not to run a story from Kashmir we'd never even heard about."

On Monday officials in Srinagar were told by a reliable go-between that the hostages were still alive. The crisis had past. In Srinagar yesterday, an Indian government spokesman said, "We believe the hostages are safe. We now are in constant touch with Al-Faran on the phone and through other means."

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