Families plead for 'forgotten' hostages

The kidnapping of two Britons in Kashmir in 1995 has left few clues
Desperate to find out the fate of two British backpackers who were kidnapped at gunpoint by militant Muslim gunmen in Kashmir 21 months ago, the hostages' families returned to India to appeal for their release yesterday.

They will meet with politicians and diplomats in both New Delhi and Islamabad, and also ask herdsmen who live near the Himalayan trekking routes where the men were abducted to come forward with any clues. Police sources in Srinagar said that bearded Westerners had been sighted in the area a fortnight ago by locals, but it has been 16 months since the last official contact with captives Keith Mangan and Paul Wells.

An American and a German tourist are also still missing. Norwegian Hans Ostro, who was beheaded just a month after the kidnapping, was found on a trail, with the kidnappers' group name, Al Faran, carved on his belly in August 1995.

The families will circulate pamphlets in Urdu describing the plight of hostages and appeal for their release on humanitarian grounds. For the first time, the families will visit Jammu and seek the help of prominent Kashmiris who may have influence with insurgents in touch with the kidnappers. "We must speak with Harkat ul Ansar this time," Julie Mangan, Keith's wife, said. Al Faran is suspected to be a breakaway faction of Harkat ul Ansar, a more established separatist group which held two other British tourists hostage for over three weeks in 1994. They have denied the link and have denounced the kidnapping.

Mrs Mangan, 35, believes her husband, Keith, is alive and intends to pry out any snippet of information which might lead to the missing electrician, who grew up in Middlesborough. During a previous visit to the area last October, she said very little useful information was gathered. "People tell us what they think we want to hear, but we just want the truth," Mrs Mangan said. "But even if it's second-hand information, we want the authorities to check it out. If, God forbid, they are dead, we want to know." This is her third visit to India since her anniversary trip to the Taj Mahal was curtailed by the gunmen.

Many officials fear the captives were executed in December 1995, but there is no hard evidence. Negotiations with the kidnappers broke down soon after and have not resumed. A rumoured burial site was dug up last year by German commandos, American Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, and Scotland Yard experts, following the confession of a captured militant. No bodies were uncovered, however.

The families, anxious to bring their predicament to the attention of new political leaders in Srinagar, New Delhi, and Islamabad, want to press their campaign for new information before snow melts in the high mountain passes. They believe their best chance to find the hostages is in the more accessible lower valleys, if they are still living.

Bob Wells, father of Paul Wells, is as grim-faced as Catherine Moseley, 27, the girlfriend of the missing photography student from Notting- ham. "We have been kept in an agonising situation," he said. "Any information, old or new, will help." The group was delayed by an air controllers' strike in India, and is trying to make up lost time.

Mrs Mangan's cousin, James Bowman, is a former law student who has organised a fundraising and support campaign in northern England and is also accompanying the group.