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Answers prove hostages are alive

Kashmiri kidnappers, talking by radio from the Himalayas with Indian officials yesterday answered questionnaires sent by relatives of four Western hostages giving further proof that two Britons, an American and a German are still alive.

Earlier, relatives of the four tourists abducted nearly two months ago passed on questionnaires to the Al-Faran kidnappers through a go-between in Srinagar, capital of India's troubled state of Kashmir. "The questions were such things as family birthdays and other personal details that only the hostages could answer," said one senior Indian police official.

Indian authorities had wanted proof that Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham, along with a German and an American had not been killed. Using a radio set provided by the Indian government and speaking on a special frequency, a kidnapper read out the hostages' answers.

The next step is up to India. Until now, India has put off agreeing with the kidnappers' demands that jailed Kashmir rebels be set free in exchange for the hostages' release. The excuse was that it wanted evidence that the Westerners were unharmed. Al-Faran this month beheaded a Norwegian and threatened to kill the others if India does not comply swiftly.

Officially, Indian is refusing to release any of the 15 Kashmir prisoners on Al-Faran's list. They are all Kashmir Muslim rebel commanders and are considered by India as too dangerous to set free. Privately, Indian negotiators claim they can possibly work out some compromise, either by releasing other Kashmiri militants or by giving the kidnappers a guarantee of safe passage to neighbouring Pakistan.

Even still, Indian police sources yesterday ruled out the prospect of an early release of the hostages, claiming that further talks with Al- Faran could drag on for a week or longer.