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Hopes rise for release of hikers held in Kashmir

Two Britons kidnapped by gunmen while trekking in the Himalayas may soon be freed, as Indian police yesterday entered into indirect negotiations with their captors.

Efforts to secure the release of the Britons - Kim Housego, 16, and David Mackie, 36, - received a boost when all three leading Kashmiri guerrilla outfits, which are fighting Indian rule in this mountainous north-west territory, condemned the kidnapping. The Britons, abducted on Monday near a glacier, are being held by a small insurgent band known as Harakat-a-Ansar.

Kim's father, David, a former Financial Times journalist, said: 'It's been a day of ups and downs and conflicting rumours. I've been imagining seeing Kim set free and walking down the mountain towards us, and then a new rumour reaches us, and all hope vanishes.'

The latest blow to the captives' chances came when police negotiators were told that the kidnappers had hardened their demands. Earlier, a Harakat-a-Ansar chief, speaking from Pakistan, had said they would be released unconditionally. But gunmen told mediators that the Britons would only be set free if the Indian government, in exchange, released three imprisoned rebel commanders.

Kim's parents, David and Jenny Housego, and Mr Mackie's wife, Cathy, have set up a command headquarters on a houseboat with telephones on a lake outside Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. For more than three years, Kashmiri Muslim guerrillas have been fighting a civil war against Indian security forces in which thousands have died.

However, over the past two months fighting has abated, and Indian officials began encouraging tourism in this scenic alpine area. The gunmen said they kidnapped the two Britons near Pahalgam, 55 miles east of Srinagar, to scare away tourists and draw attention to human rights abuses in Kashmir by Indian security forces.

Mrs Mackie said: 'There's been lots of thunder and it rained all night. It could be bad if Kim and David are sleeping rough.' She described her husband, a London video director, as 'cool- headed and tactful'. She added: 'He wouldn't do anything stupid. . . I hope.'

Guerrilla chiefs from the three most powerful Kashmiri insurgent groups, which often are shooting at each other as much as at the 200,000 Indian security forces patrolling Kashmir, united yesterday in volunteering to help secure the captive Britons' immediate release.