Britons held hostage by Kashmiri gunmen

TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

and MUKHTAR AHMED

Srinagar

Two Britons and two Americans were kidnapped by suspected Kashmiri separatists while trekking through the Himalayan mountains in the troubled Indian state of Kashmir, police officials confirmed yesterday.

The Britons were identified as Paul Wells, a 23-year-old photography student on a six-week trekking holiday, and Ian Kydd. They and the Americans were seized by gunmen while they were climbing to a glacier in a high mountain valley of southern Kashmir.

"They were walking in the Kashmir hills in Indian Kashmir and a military group overran them and took four of them off," a Foreign Office spokesman said later in London. The spokesman said the Foreign Office had no further information on the four, who disappeared in a popular holiday area near Srinagar.

Two female and one male trekker, who was ill, were allowed to leave by the 15 gunmen who surrounded their camp. This party of three, along with two guides, walked for a day to Pahalgam to alert police.

A militant group calling itself Al-Faran yesterday claimed responsibility. Police said the captors were demanding that 21 leading Kashmiri militants be released from jail in exchange for the hostages. A Kashmir Rangers police chief, Sayed Shoaib Ali, said that security forces had begun a "massive hunt" in the Lidder valley, where the four were seized on Tuesday.

Al-Faran is thought to be an offshoot of a militant organisation known as Harakat-ul-Ansar, which a year ago kidnapped two Britons, Kim Housego and David Mackie, climbing in the same Pahalgam area. Indians say Harakat- ul-Ansar and possibly the new group have many Afghan and Pakistani guerrillas among their ranks. Kim, 16, and Mr Mackie, 34, were freed unharmed after 17 days.

Kashmiri separatists have been waging a five-year civil war against Indian security forces in which more than 10,000 people have died.

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