Kashmir hostage runs to freedom

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The Independent Online
TIM McGIRK

New Delhi and

MUKHTAR AHMED

Srinagar

An American hiker who was kidnapped with a fellow countryman and two Britons in the disputed Indian state of Kashmir escaped while his captors slept in their Himalayan camp. But the Kashmiri rebels holding the three remaining Westerners yesterday set an ultimatum of 15 July for India to meet their demands of exchanging the hostages for 21 jailed rebel leaders.

Unless the Kashmiri prisoners are released, a note from the Al-Faran group warned , "the Indian government will be responsible for the consequences. Our fight is against the anti-Islamic forces." The note was delivered to reporters yesterday in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital.

The escaped hostage, John Childs, an engineer in his thirties from Connecticut, said he waited until 2am before slipping away from his 15 armed captors. "I took advantage of darkness and bad weather ... I was not released, I escaped," said Mr Childs, who was limping from blistered feet.

After he had made his getaway, running down the mountains through rain, mist and darkness, he followed a stream into the forest. After sunrise, he was spotted by an army search helicopter which picked him up. Lt General DD Saklani, head of the search operation, said: "At first he was wary of the helicopter. He thought it might have been Pakistani." Pakistan is often accused by India of arming the Kashmir rebels.

Gen Saklani had a "rough knowledge" of where the armed gang might be hiding their captives. "We don't want to launch a rescue operation, it might endanger the lives of the hostages." Mr Childs said he and the others had been treated well.

Mr Childs was cautioned against giving details about the condition of the two Britons and the American, or where they might be hidden. But police said they believed the gang and their hostages might be high in the mountains near the Amarnath cave, a Hindu shrine.

A German tourist, Dirk Hasert, was seized on Saturday, four days after the other Westerners along the same Pahalgam trekking route. But so far no Kashmiri group has claimed responsibility. Militants in Kashmir, which has a Muslim majority, are fighting to break away from India.

Indian authorities, along with diplomats from Britain and the US who are in Srinagar, have so far failed to establish direct contact with the kidnappers. It is doubtful that India will meet the militants' ransom demands; the names on the abductors' list are all top rebel commanders, and India has taken years to snare them. Police in Srinagar said India will first try to convince the Kashmir rebels to stretch their deadline.

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