Howard in fresh talks on hostages

TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was briefed by his Indian counterpart yesterday on the plight of two Britons who, along with an American and a German, have been held captive for more than six months by Kashmiri rebels.

Mr Howard refused to reveal what S B Chavan had told him about New Delhi's efforts to free the two Britons, Keith Mangan, 33, an electrician from south London, and Paul Wells, 23, a Nottingham student, who were taken hostage while trekking in the Himalayas last summer. "You'll understand that I can't comment. The hostages' lives are at stake," he said.

When the westerners were first seized by Al-Faran rebels, the Home Secretary secretly sent several Scotland Yard anti-terrorist experts and hostage negotiators to India to help to secure their freedom. Indian authorities ruled out any military operation to rescue the hostages, arguing it might endanger their lives.

During his South Asia tour, Mr Howard said he would also raise the issue of the hostages during talks with Pakistani officials in Islamabad. Pakistan gives diplomatic and moral support to the armed insurgents, who have been leading a six-year Muslim uprising against Indian security forces in Kashmir. India claims that Pakistani intelligence is behind the Al- Faran band of kidnappers but Islamabad denies this.

The hostages, disguised in Kashmiri woollen ponchos and escorted by Al- Faran gunmen, were reportedly seen last on 23 December by villagers in the Himalayan foothills of southern Kashmir.

The British High Commission in New Delhi was said to have sent Christmas gifts from the hostages' relatives to Kashmir in the hope that sympathetic Muslims might pass them on to the captives.

It is not known whether the hostages received the presents,and any hope of an early negotiated release seems slim. India refuses to agree to the kidnappers' main demand - that 15 Kashmir militants held in Indian jails be freed, in exchange for the hostages' lives.

Al-Faran broke off contact with Indian negotiators in November and, officially, no words have been exchanged since then.

Aside from the hostage crisis, Mr Howard took advantage of his Indian visit to push his tougher line on British immigration.

He spent several hours with British consular officers in New Delhi, watching them process the thousands of people seeking visas. "I've been shown evidence as to the extraordinary lengths to which people will go to gain entry to my country illegally,'' Mr Howard said. ''They forge passports, visas, and make the most sophisticated attempts to deceive."

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