24-hour deadline set for hostages

TIM MCGIRK

New Delhi

Kashmiri kidnappers vowed to kill four Western hostages, including two Britons, by tonight unless India releases several jailed Kashmiri militants in exchange, according to a communique reportedly issued by the Al-Faran guerrillas to two local newspapers.

Some doubts exist over the authenticity of this latest ultimatum, but Indian authorities and Western diplomats are responding to it seriously. The communique warned yesterday that "We will kill all the four foreign hostages if the authorities fail to announce the release of our jailed militants by Saturday evening." For two months, Al-Faran has been holding captive, high in the Himalayas, two British trekkers - Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting, and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham - along with an American and a German.

Al-Faran cut off radio contact with a negotiator last Monday, convinced that Indian authorities were stalling and the Indians are worried the guerrillas may have lost patience.

Death-threats have come and gone during the Kashmir hostage crisis, now entering its third month. But if this latest communique is genuine, the kidnappers may not back down. India and Al-Faran have hardened their attitude over the past week, with the kidnappers demanding nothing less than the release of the top four jailed Kashmiri rebel commanders in a trade for the hostages' lives. "Al-Faran's demands have been entirely unreasonable," said one Indian government spokesman. "We cannot agree."

The government's room for manoeuvre also has been cut, with right-wing Hindu parties accusing the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, of being too soft on the Muslim separatists of Kashmir.

In the latest communique, Al-Faran dismissed the government's attitude as "very irresponsible" and added that "the government should announce the release of our jailed militants without mentioning number. The exchange of hostages could be discussed later. We will wait until tomorrow evening. We will take the extreme step after the expiry of deadline and the authorities will be responsible for it."

A contingent of foreign anti-terrorist experts, including the SAS, are in India reportedly advising their governments on whether or not a commando raid could save the hostages or not. Indian government sources said that rescue plans were shelved for as long as the kidnappers kept talking.

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