Abductions lay waste Kashmir

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The Independent Online
"BEFORE, my houseboat was always full. Now have a look," said Ghulam Nabih sadly, as he fanned through the pages of a guestbook for the Holiday Inn, his creaky Kashmiri houseboat. "See? Empty. Aiee! We are going broke with all this fighting between the Indians and militants." His most recent guests were four Britons: Paul Wells, Catherine Moseley and Julie and Keith Mangan.

The foursome were the only guests that Mr Nabih has had this entire year aboard his regal houseboat, which floats among the lotus pads on a lake encircled by snowy peaks and which is reached by gondola. The Britons will probably be Mr Nabih's last guests for a long time, too.

On a trek with pack ponies and food, arranged by Mr Nabih, high into the Himalayas to see the Kolahoi glacier, in the Pahalgam region of southern Kashmir, the two British men in the party - Mr Wells, 23, a photography student from Blackburn, and Mr Mangan, an electrician from Tooting, along with two Americans - were abducted by Muslim militants. They are now thought to be hidden either in the deep Himalayan forests of fir trees and birch or further up, on the high, snowy ridges.

The foreign women and a sick male Canadian trekker in the party were left behind by the gunmen, although a fifth hostage, a German, was taken on Friday, presumably by the same "Al-Faran" group. "I'm glad we at least saw the glacier before this happened," said Mr Wells's companion, Ms Moseley.

Ever since a separatist uprising began six years ago in this Indian-administered state, Kashmir has become a sort of black hole for foreign tourists. The Indian authorities like to pretend that everything is fine in Kashmir when it is obviously not: over 10,000 people have been killed in this Muslim insurrection. In addition, the Kashmiris, who have always relied on tourism, are now so broke that they encourage foreigners to come, despite the risk of rape, robbery and abduction.

On a carved cedar-roofed verandah on the Holiday Inn, Mr Nabih pointed out the rows of houseboat hotels floating on Dal lake. All are empty. Srinagar has over 1,300 houseboats, a pleasurable relic from the days of the British Raj. Now, all these houseboat owners and their wheedling touts are fighting each other for the dozen or so foreign tourists who straggle in each day.

It is a desperate business. Brawls between houseboat agents often break out at Srinagar airport as tourists arrive. Innocent holidaymakers find out immediately that they have wandered into a war zone. Soldiers with guns are everywhere, and Indian Air Force jets scream overhead, on patrol.

"Neither the police nor the tourism people gave us any warning of trouble in Pahalgam," Mr Nabih claimed. His excuse is disingenuous. Exactly a year ago, a band of Kashmiri militants grabbed two Britons, one a teenager, just a few miles away from where the latest batch of tourists were taken. The two were released unharmed after 17 days, and their captors were never arrested.

Britain, like most countries, warns its nationals to keep away from Kashmir. The official Indian tour operators do not. Several years ago, two Japanese honeymooners were sent to Kashmir by a Delhi travel agency. Laden with video cameras, the couple were mistaken for journalists by the Indian army brass and given a tour of military operations. "We could not understand why these journalists spent all their time kissing and laughing in the backseat of the jeep," one colonel said.