Waite's plea for Kashmir hostages

Father denies claims that guerrillas murdered their captives a year ago

The father of one of four men held hostage by guerrillas in Kashmir yesterday dismissed reports that the captives had been killed a year ago. The statement came as churches across Britain held a day-long vigil for the men who have been held for 537 days.

Bob Wells, 52, was speaking after a church service in Blackburn for his son, Paul, who was a student at Nottingham University before his capture in July 1995. The former Beirut hostages, Terry Waite and John McCarthy, issued a strong plea for the Kashmiris to disclose information about the fate of the two Britons, who are held along with one German and one American.

The Indian Express newspaper yesterday ran a story that one of the kidnappers, now in jail, had claimed the men were killed by their captors on 13 December last year.

Mr Wells, who last heard official news of his son a year ago, said: "We have heard this before and this is the original rumour circulating again. It is the same story that people are constantly latching on to. It is extremely distressing for us every time it gets repeated. Until we get positive information and positive knowledge that they are no longer around, we will continue to believe they are alive."

Paul Wells, 25, Keith Mangan, 36, of Middlesbrough, and an American climber, Donald Hutchens, 43, were kidnapped at gunpoint from a camp site while trekking in the area. Dirk Hasert, 26, of Germany was seized four days later. A Norwegian hostage, Hans Ostroe, was beheaded in August 1995. Officially, the men have not been sighted for more than a year, but the Kashmiri Times carried a picture of them as recently as November.

Terry Waite, who was released from a four-year captivity in Beirut in 1991, told the congregation: "Myself and John McCarthy would like to say this: anyone who has any information whatsoever about the Western hostages, please now come forward and let us know."

He urged people in Kashmir that a charity such as the Red Cross would be a secure way of passing on information, adding that bad news was better than no news. "Say you have a special message for John McCarthy and Terry Waite and let us have this information this Christmas time so we can face the truth," he said.

More than 250 people attended the service at the Wellses' parish church, Immanuel, in Feniscowles, Lancashire. Mr Wells was delighted with the support and recognition of the hostage campaign. "Terry Waite and John McCarthy's presence made a great deal of difference," he said. Earlier he had read a prayer for the captives as his wife, Dianne, lit a candle for each of the four. Finally, John McCarthy lit a fifth candle for the people of Kashmir and those holding the men captive.

The Wells plan to spend a quiet Christmas at home with their two other children. "We'll be getting on with things quietly but keeping Paul in our minds and hearts," Mr Wells said. "We're sad to have to spend yet another Christmas not knowing."

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