Fears grow as Kashmir gang raises hostage stakes

TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

Fears for the lives of four Western tourists deepened yesterday when Kashmir kidnappers hardened their demands and threatened to kill their hostages unless India frees at least three jailed Kashmir militants in exchange.

In a radio message received yesterday, Al-Faran rebels warned: "We won't hesitate to kill the foreigners if our demands aren't met." Indian officials in the Kashmir capital, Srinagar, described the development as "worrying", but were relieved the kidnappers did not set a deadline for killing the four hostages, two Britons, a German and an American.

Al-Faran claimed some of the hostages had fallen ill during their seven- week ordeal. After the beheading of a Norwegian tourist by the rebels, Indian officials are taking the latest threat to murder the hostages very seriously.

In Srinagar, Western diplomats and Indian security advisers met in an emergency meeting last night to discuss the kidnappers' hardened stance. British diplomats there are being advised by Scotland Yard kidnap experts who recentlyvisited the mountainous Anantnag region of southern Kashmir where the kidnappers are believed to be holding their captives.

The two Britons are Keith Mangan, 33, an electrician from Tooting, London, and Paul Wells, 23, a student from Nottingham. They were captured by Kashmir rebels while on a holiday trek in the Himalayas. Their wife and girlfriend were also grabbed by the Islamic rebels but were then set free.

The British High Commission in New Delhi refused to comment on Indian press reports that a team of SAS commandos had arrived in India in case a rescue raid is launched on the rebels' mountain hideout.

But the chances for a compromise may be fading, as India has refused to hand over the three Kashmir prisoners demanded by Al-Faran.

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