Hope rises for hostages in Kashmir

A SIGNIFICANT obstacle to the release of two Britons kidnapped by Kashmiri guerrillas eight days ago in the Himalayas has been removed. The Indian army yesterday agreed to demands by the captors to suspend patrols in the craggy mountain valleys of Pahalgam, in Kashmir, where Kim Housego, 16, and David Mackie, 36, were abducted while on trekking holidays.

The Indian army will open a 'safe-passage corridor' to be used by the kidnappers to release the two Britons within the next 24 hours. David Housego, Kim's father, said: 'I've received assurances from the state authorities that no operations will be carried out which will in any manner endanger the release of Kim and David.'

Earlier, the captors, who belong to a Muslim fundamentalist organisation called Harakat-a-Ansar, said that they were prepared to set the two Britons free immediately once the Indian army had pulled back.

That was three days ago. A senior army officer in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, said that all troop movements in the area were 'frozen' on Saturday and, indeed, journalists who rode on horseback to Aroo, where the two Britons were taken hostage, reported seeing no security forces.

It is believed that Kim and Mr Mackie - who has an injured knee - were forced by their captors to cover more than 30 miles in icy rain, down from the high glacial valleys to the forests near Kokanag, which offers better cover to the rebel band.

An unidentified long-distance caller told Mr Housego that Kim and Mr Mackie were carried on their abductors' shoulders down mountains slippery with rain.

Many Kashmiri militant groups and the Pakistan government appealed for the two Britons' freedom.

Pakistan's word carries far, since Islamabad gives public support to the Muslim militants leading a four-year uprising against Indian rule in Kashmir.

Killing is nightmarishly routine in Kashmir. In the past week that Mr Mackie and Kim have endured captivity as the rebels' 'guest foreigners', more than 100 Kashmiris have died in shoot- outs and Indian army raids.

Letter, page 15