India refuses to agree to ransom call

Kashmir crisis: 13 die in blast at Srinagar barracks as fate of Western hostages looks grim

TIM MCGIRK

New Delhi

The last radio contact that Kashmiri kidnappers holding four Western tourists made with an Indian negotiator on Sunday lasted 30 seconds, long enough for the abductors to hear that India has not agreed to their ransom demands.

Since then, the Al-Faran rebels' radio silence has been ominous. "We're at a delicate stage," said one Indian police official. "It could go either way. They could free the hostages or, just as easily, carry out their threats to kill them."

In Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, yesterday, two cars packed with 50kg of explosives blew up on a busy street next to an Indian security forces' barracks. Nine soldiers and four civilians died and 30 others were injured in the blast, for which a Kashmir Muslim group known as Hezbul Mujahedin claimed responsibility. The street is a frequent target for the Muslim militants; Kashmiris who can recognise the signs of an impending ambush know when to steer clear of the area. The use of car bombs, however, gave no warning to passers-by.

In the complex mosaic of Kashmir militancy, in which some insurgents are fighting for independence from India and others for unity with Pakistan, it is possible to find two Muslim militant groups who are bitter rivals, despite being at the same end of the political spectrum. Hezbul Mujahedin and Al-Faran are both fighting to drag Kashmir over to the neighbouring Muslim state of Pakistan, but despise each other.

Along with nearly all militant groups in this troubled Himalayan region, Hezbul Mujahedin classes Al-Faran astraitors for having kidnapped two Britons, an American and a German, swinging world opinion against the Kashmiri separatist struggle.

The grim turn to the hostage negotiations seems to have arisen because neither the Indians nor Al-Faran have budged in nearly two months. Al- Faran insists that in exchange for the hostages' lives, India must free at least four jailed Kashmir insurgent commanders. After initial signs that it might do so, Narasimha Rao's government has toughened its stand against the rebel kidnappers. The main opposition party, the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, along with the Communists, warned Mr Rao that he would face a roasting if he traded Kashmiri prisoners for the Westerners.

Instead of releasing the prisoners, the Indians are reportedly prepared to offer guarantees of safe passage to the 15 Al-Faran gunmen holding the four Westerners - Britons Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting, south London, and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham, as well as a German and an American. "Until now, Al-Faran have been extremely unreasonable," said one senior Indian official. The group accuses Indian authorities of stalling.

Prospects of a rescue raid on the kidnappers' hideout - thought to be somewhere in the mountains of southern Kashmir, near Anantnag - have also dimmed. Not only would such an assault endanger the hostages' lives, but the Indian army is reported to be angered by the presence of more than 60 foreign "anti-terrorist experts" in Kashmir. This force, said to include men from the SAS as well as German commandos, is now camping at a secluded army base near Srinagar. The Indian press reported that the highest ranking Indian officer in Kashmir, Lieutenant-General Surinder Singh, handed in his resignation to the Prime Minister in protest over the blow to the army's "prestige" in letting in foreign commandos. Mr Rao refused the general's resignation, but the hostage negotiations have taken on a political slant inside India which he cannot ignore.

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