Indian moves raise hostage hopes

TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

Negotiations between India and the Kashmiri rebels holding four tourists have entered a byzantine phase, in which the hostages are being used as pawns in a dangerous game between India and Pakistan.

Western diplomats were cheered by the Al-Faran kidnappers' release on Wednesday of photographs and taped messages showing the two Britons - Keith Managan, 33, from Tooting and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham - an American and a German might still be alive. Al-Faran has spared its captives because India is dangling the possibility that, in exchange for the tourists, it might set free a few Kashmir rebel prisoners wanted by Al-Faran.

Pakistan also covets the Indian border state of Kashmir and has been giving moral and diplomatic support to Muslim separatists. The Indians and several Western intelligence agencies say Pakistan has been providing arms, money and training through Islamic fundamentalist groups - a claim Islamabad denies.

When the Indians claimed on Sunday that they had intercepted a radio message from somewhere inside Pakistan to Al-Faran, ordering the kidnappers to kill the tourists on a pre-arranged signal, it seems their lives were saved by pressure put on the Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, by the White House. Western governments believe Ms Bhutto dealt with Al-Faran through intermediaries in Pakistani military intelligence and the Islamic fundamentalist parties.

Islamabad passed down the order among the Kashmir guerrillas on the Pakistan side of the border that the Westerners were not to be killed. This twist of events suits India. The hostage-taking has harmed international support for the Kashmiris' independence struggle. Britain, the US and Germany are asking why Ms Bhutto cannot apply more pressure to secure the hostages' freedom.

Ms Bhutto may be powerless to persuade the extreme anti-Western hostage- takers but if Al-Faran kills the tourists, international condemnation could rebound on Pakistan.

Meanwhile, a senior Indian official said New Delhi was playing brinkmanship with Al-Faran, stalling and planting misleading leaks to the media claiming that negotiations are proceeding swiftly with the kidnappers when they are not.

"Al-Faran wants us to set free at least three hard-core leaders of Harakat- ul-Ansar. We simply won't. They're too dangerous," the official said. "We routinely let out Kashmir militants, the less dangerous ones, and if Al-Faran wants to save face by using this as an excuse to release the foreigners, that's fine with us."

The official added with a smile of satisfaction: "Until then, it's up to Pakistan to make sure these Al-Faran fellows don't kill the foreigners."

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