Armed rebels seize Britons in Kashmir

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Two Britons, one of them a schoolboy, were kidnapped by guerrillas on Monday while on a mountain trek in the north Indian state of Kashmir. Their captors are demanding the release of three militants held by Indian security forces.

Kim Housego, 16, and David Mackie, 36, from London, were hiking towards a glacier near Pahalgam in the Himalayas when their group was ambushed. Jennie Housego, Kim's mother, said: 'We were walking up over a rise when the unthinkable happened. Four men were standing there with Kalashnikovs.

'They grabbed Kim and then stole money and warm clothes from all our rucksacks.' One gunman led the trekkers - David Mackie, his wife, Cathy, and the Housego family - to a nearby village while the three others went off, as Mrs Housego said, 'to meet their great chief'.

Once they reached the village, the rebels led them to a small inn, and held them at gunpoint until his comrades returned later that evening. The Kashmiri villagers were too terrified to intervene.

'I have this extraordinary image of us jammed into this candle-lit room with all these mercenaries. Things seemed to grow calm, and then they took Kim and David away, saying they'd be staying in a different inn. Then they locked us inside and left,' said Mrs Housego in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital.

The party escaped through a window and searched the village in vain for the schoolboy and Mr Mackie, a London video director. When they returned to the inn, they found on the floor a ransom note saying that the two Britons were to be used as pawns against the Indian government.

Kashmiri militants have been fighting a civil war against Indian security forces for nearly three years, in which more than 5,000 people have died. But lately an illusion of calm had descended over the western Himalayas, a favourite spot for trekkers. David Housego, a former Financial Times bureau chief in Delhi who had visited the war-torn area many times, said the kidnappers were not Kashmiris but Afghan and Pathan mercenaries who crossed over the mountains from Pakistan.

'None of the prisoners they want released are Kashmiris - they're all from the Pakistani side of the border,' Mr Housego said. 'None of them spoke Kashmiri, either.'

The Housegos had been given assurances by the Indian government that the Pahalgam glacier area was safe for walking. Kashmiri militants, too, in the past had refrained from attacking the few tourists who climb there.

The Home Ministry indicated that it would open 'lines of communication' with the various militant groups in Kashmir, but it is doubtful that India will agree to a hostage exchange. Security forces yesterday searched for the victims, but with no luck.

The kidnappers are thought to belong to a well-organised network stretching as far as Delhi. 'One of the things they demanded was our home address in Delhi,' said Mrs Housego. That same evening, the Housego's Delhi home was robbed.

The captors said they belonged to a small and relatively unknown band called Harakat-e-Ansar, and in Srinagar yesterday several prominent Kashmiri militant groups volunteered to help secure the Britons' freedom.

Indian security forces accuse Pakistan of recruiting mercenaries among the Afghan and Pathan tribesmen to fight in disputed Kashmir. Pakistan denies any direct links with the insurgents fighting in Kashmir.