Kashmir paralysed by strike

Hostage crisis: Kidnappers' murder of Norwegian sparks protest by secessionists seeking international support for their cause

TIM MCGIRK

Anantnag, Kashmir

The notice from Al-Faran was taped on a wall in a part of Anantnag town where Indian soldiers are warned not to go. A gang of young Kashmiri militants holding pistols lazed in an alley beside the latest angry message from the militant group of kidnappers who are threatening to kill two Britons, an American and a German.

"Westerners are enemies of Islam," the message said. It jeered at those Kashmiris who protested against Al-Faran for killing "a Jew", even though the foreign tourist, Hans Ostro, whom the kidnappers murdered by cutting his throat on Sunday, was Norwegian.

After a strike call by prominent Kashmiri clergymen and secessionist leaders to protest against the Norwegian's killing, life in this Himalayan valley came to a standstill yesterday. Shops were shuttered, no buses ran and men huddled beside their hookah pipes to share thoughts as to why, for the first time since a Muslim revolt erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir six years ago, the secessionists have declared a general strike against fellow rebels.

Someone pasted up Al-Faran's jeering message - the first since Ostro's killing - early yesterday in a main thoroughfare of Anantnag. One young Kashmiri said nervously: "Al-Faran told us to keep our shops open, but we didn't."

Yet none of the Kashmiris gathered at this cross-roads, even the teenage gunmen who were militant rivals of Al-Faran, dared to tear down the crude photocopied poster.

Kashmiris are worried that Al-Faran's barbarism might lose them international sympathy for their freedom struggle against India. Some insurgents are going so far to distance themselves from Al-Faran that they accuse the kidnappers of being "Indian mercenaries".

Criticising the strike yesterday, Al-Faran militants said: "We ourselves know what we have to do. We don't need to be taught lessons by anyone."

A bearded young commander, armed with both pistol and an assault rifle, from the most powerful rebel group, Hezbul-Mujaheddin, said from inside a Srinagar safe house: "All of our units are under orders to find Al-Faran and do what we can to free the foreigners, but so far no one's found anything. None of us had ever heard of Al-Faran before this kidnapping. Our militants say that even in the countryside, up in the mountains, none of the villagers has seen them. It's strange."

A deadline set by Al-Faran threatening to kill the remaining four hostages passed yesterday with no word from the abductors other than a message viciously attacking the other secessionist groups, accusing them of being "pro-American". The rebels said ominously that they would report on the tourists' state within the next few days. The two kidnapped Britons are Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting, south London, and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham. They and the other two were seized six weeks ago while on trekking holidays in the Himalayas.

In the latest contact with Al-Faran yesterday, the Indian negotiators reportedly demanded proof that the four tourists are still alive before New Delhi agrees to release 15 jailed Kashmiri rebel commanders in exchange for them.

Negotiators in Srinagar are still waiting to hear if Al-Faran has agreed to satisfy the Indian demand for proof. It is feared that the abductors might choose one of the two Britons as the next victim.

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