Kashmir hostages' long trek to freedom: Muslim rebels say the deployment of Indian security forces in the Himalayan state nearly scuppered release of Britons

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THE DARKEST time for the relatives of the two British hostages in Kashmir was on Monday when news arrived that their only go-between with the kidnappers had been murdered. With all hopes for the release scattered away, David and Jenny Housego wept for their son, Kim, and Cathy Mackie for her husband, Dave.

Unknown assassins had shot the secret intermediary and dumped his corpse in a lane. He was Qazi Nissar, one of the most respected Muslim clergymen in Kashmir, and the one man who had gained the abductors' trust.

'I was appalled. It was a tragedy. Not only for us, but for all of Kashmir,' Mrs Housego said.

Nissar had been summoned from his Anantnag home on Sunday for a secret meeting. The Housegos and Mrs Mackie had thought - incorrectly - he was seeing commanders of Harakat-al- Ansar, the group of Islamic extremists that had kidnapped their loved ones. The relatives had hoped the meeting was to fix the time and place of the hostages' release.

On Sunday night, the Kashmiri militants were preparing to move Kim and Mr Mackie down from the Pahalgam mountain range, where they had been fleeing the Indian army. The hostages had been seized on 6 June, on a well- known Himalayan trekking route, by Kashmiri Muslim secessionists. The captors were worried that the Indian army might ambush them on their descent. But Kim's father, David Housego, a former journalist who was able to tap old contacts, had secured a guarantee that the security forces would suspend operations in a defined mountain corridor - but only until Wednesday. It was a window of escape, a small one.

Kim and Mr Mackie finally ended their high-altitude odyssey across the Himalayas on Monday, when they were led down from the peaks. It was a relief to their captors as well. Both Britons had sunglasses against the intense mountain glare. The Islamic fighters didn't. 'Some of them would come back to camp and be snowblind for three or four days,' said Kim, whose own face was sun-blistered.

Finally, fording the rapids across a treacherous ice-bridge, they reached the village of Chandan Wari. It was the next valley over from Aroo, where they were kidnapped. From there their captivity was less gruelling but more dangerous. Their captors led them to believe that, if they were caught, the Indian army would shoot them both and blame their deaths on the Kashmiri militants.

The two hostages were taken by taxi 80km down to Anantnag. But the murder of the Muslim clergyman halted everything that night, and on Tuesday too. That day the funeral procession for Nissar had gathered nearly 100,000 mourners, who were blocking all the roads. Harakat told the police the Britons were on their way through the crowds. Rather than risk anything happening to the pair amid the mourners, the police offered to escort them into town. Suspicious, the abductors refused and the hostages' release was again delayed.

With their one contact dead, and the army's window of opportunity fast shutting, the Housegos and Mrs Mackie despaired. It is still not known why Nissar was shot. The Indian government claimed he was a victim of feuds between the Kashmiri Muslim secessionists, while the Kashmiri militants blamed his death on 'Indian agents'. In any event, the clergyman's killing seems not to have been related to the hostage drama.

As a long shot, on Wednesday the Housegos travelled up from Srinagar to Anantnag, ready to restart the arduous process of finding another negotiator acceptable to the Kashmiri captors. Their first stop was at the home of Police Supt Mohammed Amin Shah.

'He's an honest, intelligent policeman who thought that because the kidnapping had happened on his patch, it was his job to sort it out,' Mr Housego said. At one point during the long negotiations, the police officer, wearing plain clothes and with no bodyguards, went alone into the mountains to meet members of Harakat.

To the Housegos' surprise, the Supt told them the hostages had reached somewhere near Anantnag, the largest town in southern Kashmir. It has a large army garrison that the captors obviously wanted to avoid. David and Jenny Housego sat for hours in the police office in the expectation that any second Kim and Mr Mackie would be escorted into the room. But it never happened. Crushed, the Housegos returned to Srinagar.

Although the safe house where Kim and Mr Mackie were locked up was only a short walk from the police station, further complications arose over the 'modalities' as the Harakat spokesman explained over the telephone in his school-perfect English.

On Wednesday night, the two Britons were told grim news by their abductors. 'They said it would be another four or five days,' said Mr Mackie. But the next morning, the two captives were given their Western clothes, freshly laundered. Mr Mackie said: 'We were taken by auto-rickshaw to a wood. I looked around and there were all these men stalking us. I looked again and saw they all had cameras - they were photographers. At that moment, the top man just turned to us and said, 'You're free to go'.'

The photographers were Kashmiri journalists who drove them back to Srinagar to reunite Kim and Mr Mackie with their relatives. Both were stunned and elated, though weary. 'It's incredible to be free,' said Kim, skinny and on the verge of tears. At that moment, he was gazing through a window in a Srinagar government house, waiting for his parents to arrive. The house was surrounded by dozens of armed police, which caught Kim's attention. 'I hate guns,' the 16-year-old said bitterly.

(Photograph omitted)