Indian police hold suspect in hunt for killer of girl, 17

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The Independent Online

The prime suspect in the hunt for the killer of Hannah Foster in Southampton last year was arrested by police in India yesterday after local people spotted a newspaper report of an appeal by her parents.

Maninder Pal Singh Kohli was caught in the foothills of the Himalayas as he made a break for the border, unnerved by publicity about the case.

The arrest vindicated the Trevor and Hilary Foster's decision to fly to the subcontinent this week to publicise the hunt for their daughter's killer.

Mr Kohli fled from Southhampton four days after Hannah, 17, disappeared from a street 500 yards from her home in March 2003 after a night out with her friends. She was found two days later, raped and strangled.

British police named Mr Kohli, who worked in a sandwich factory near Southampton, as the main suspect. But until yesterday, the last sighting of him was visiting his family in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab state, around 18 March last year.

Grisly murders are not unusual in India, and the Foster inquiry was going nowhere until her parents made emotional appeals in a series of press conferences in the country.

Mr Kohli's photograph was shown on television, and wanted notices were splashed across the front pages of national newspapers, with details of a £60,000 reward, and a freephone hotline.

Yesterday, Indian police said Mr Kohli had been living in the Himalayas near Darjeeling under an assumed name, and had married a local woman.

Darjeeling police said the arrested man had confirmed that he was Mr Kohli, and admitted that he had thrown Hannah's body out of his car in Southampton.

"But he has not admitted to the crime and he has not explained how the body got into the car," Rajiv Mishra, the Darjeeling police chief, told a press conference.

Hampshire Police said they were waiting for the arrested man's identity to be confirmed, after which extradition proceedings would start.

Police in the Indian state of West Bengal said they had received a tip-off from locals who recognised Mr Kohli after his photo appeared on the front page of several newspapers.

The reward of 5 million rupees (£60,000), offered for information on Mr Kohli's whereabouts in India, is a huge sum for most Indians. In the poor communities around Darjeeling, it is enough for most people to retire and live off for the rest of their lives.

It appears Mr Kohli realised he was in trouble the moment he saw his picture in the newspapers. When police arrived at the house in which he was living, he had already fled.

"It is too early to say who this man is. We are working to establish that as quickly as possible, but we are cautiously optimistic," said Detective Superintendent Alan Bates, who led the hunt for Hannah's killer in Britain, and is in India with her parents.

Mr and Mrs Foster and Hampshire Police officers were searching for information on Mr Kohli in Punjab, where his family is from, when the news broke that he had been arrested more than 1,000 miles east in the Himalayas.

Police were assuming that Mr Kohli, a Sikh, was most likely to hide in the Sikhs' spiritual homeland of Punjab, where he could be supported by a close-knit network of family ties. Sikhs are few and far between in the Darjeeling area, where he appears to have been finally run to ground, and his presence would have been much more noticeable. Mr Kohli appears to have been living in Kalimpong, a poor farming community in the foothills under the shadow of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.

Mrs Foster said: "We are delighted with the news of this arrest. During the last five days, we have been up and down on an emotional rollercoaster. We are just keeping our fingers crossed that the man arrested is the right man."