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Kashmir militants vow to kill again

Hostage stand-off: Britons at risk after kidnappers leave a note on the body of beheaded Norwegian
TPinned to the body of the dead Norwegian hostage was a note from Kashmiri militants vowing to kill "within two days" the four other Westerners - two Britons, a German and an American - seized a month ago while on a trekking holiday in the Himalayas.

The threat has jolted the Indian authorities into realising that either the kidnappers' ransom demands be met or the surviving tourists will be killed. The militants want the release of 15 of their jailed comrades.

The discovery of the murdered hostage had a sobering effect on the Indian authorities, who were predicting that the Kashmiri rebels were harmless and would turn over their hostages alive and well.

A woman collecting wood yesterday near Ashmuqan village, 60 miles from Srinagar, stumbled upon the corpse of Hans Ostro, 27, a tourist whose embassy had warned him against trekking in the troubled Himalayan state. He had been beheaded and the name of his rebel captors, "Al Faran", had been cut on to his stomach.

Privately, officials in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, ruled out any chance of a rescue in the snowy peaks. "We don't know where the kidnappers and their captives are hiding," said one police official. "We think they've been moving constantly up in the mountains."

The "Al-Faran" militants are demanding that India free 15 jailed rebel commanders in exchange for the lives of their remaining captives, two of whom, Keith Mangan, 33, an electrician from Tooting, south London, and Donald Hutchings, an American, were allegedly wounded in a gun battle between their captors and Indian soldiers. The second Briton is Paul Wells, 23, a student from Nottingham. It seems that the Norwegian was killed first because he was the most expendable; the kidnappers are calculating that Britain and the United States would be able to apply more pressure on India to comply with their demands.

Kashmiri rebels hardened their stance after a breakdown in negotiations with the Indian authorities after the state's governor, General Krishna Rao, reportedly replaced officials who had opened up lines of communication with insurgents. The governor's new negotiator reportedly was unable to do much more than wait for Al-Faran to call. More than 20,000 Kashmiris have died in a six-year secessionist war between rebels and Indian security forces.

The Kashmir governor last night conferred with his security advisor, Lieutenant-General S S Sakhlani, and police chiefs over the fate of the tourists. British, American and German diplomats are reportedly using contacts with prominent Kashmiri Muslims to persuade the kidnappers not to kill again.

In Kashmir yesterday, Urdu-language newspapers carried advertisements taken out by the wives and friends of the Western hostages, pleading for their release. "In the name of Allah ... we make a compassionate appeal to you for the unconditional release of these innocent tourists," it read.