DNA tests rekindle mystery of kidnapped British trekkers

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Now they are back where they started.

Six trekkers vanished into the Kashmir hills in July 1995, taken hostage by Islamic terrorists demanding the release of their leader. One of the hostages was executed and his body discovered a short while later; another escaped. The other four, including two Britons, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, simply vanished. The last reliable sighting of them is believed to have been in December 1995.

Nearly two years after that, in September 1997, Kashmir police exhumed a body which informants told them was that of Paul Wells. Weeks later, forensic scientists positively denied the report. Then in January this year, other forensic scientists in Delhi and Calcutta concluded on the basis of DNA testing that the body was indeed that of Paul Wells. But last month a Metropolitan Police team collected material from Delhi, and yesterday the Foreign Office announced that British police forensic scientists had decided that the remains were neither those of Mr Wells nor of any of the other hostages.

"DNA tests in this country have established that the remains brought back to the UK... are not those of Paul Wells," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

Paul Wells, Keith Mangan and their companions were abducted on 4 July 1995 while trekking in the beautiful Pahalgam Valley in Kashmir. Their captors called themselves Al-Faran, a previously unheard of group. Their demand was the release of a Muslim cleric, Maulana Masood Azhar, the lynchpin of various Islamic terror groups fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir. Masood had been in prison in India since 1994.

Masood was released at the end of December 1999 when India capitulated to the demands of the hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. He was one of three alleged terrorists released in exchange for the 159 hostages on the Indian Airbus, which sat on the airport tarmac in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, for several days while the hijackers and the Indian authorities negotiated.

It was in the following month, January 2000, that police in Jammu, Kashmir's winter capital, announced that scientists on the Central Forensic Science Laboratories in New Delhi and Calcutta had confirmed through DNA testing of samples of bones and other body parts that this was indeed the body of Mr Wells.

Now British police scientists have denied that claim, it is expected that scientists of the Indian and British forces will need to compare notes.