Kashmir rescue plan rumoured

TIM MCGIRK

Srinagar

Speculation that an attempt may be made to rescue four Western hostages in Kashmir, including two Britons, rose yesterday with reports that one of India's top security advisers had arrived here with a commando unit.

Indian authorities dismissed the possibility of a last-minute rescue mission to save the four kidnapped tourists, who are under threat of death by Kashmiri rebels. Scotland Yard hostage negotiators have flown to India to advise the British High Commission.

General Krishna Rao, governor of Kashmir state, where the Westerners were seized by Muslim extremists six weeks ago while on a holiday trek in the Himalayas, said yesterday that a rescue attempt by the army was unlikely to succeed. "Out there in the blue, in the high Himalayas, unless we're certain we can return these people without harm, it's not advisable to carry out an operation."

Police sources told the Independent that the Indians had received reliable intelligence on where the rebels where holding the tourists at least four times but chose not to risk a commando raid on their mountain camp. The Al-Faran kidnappers are reportedly moving the hostages through the icy ranges of Kashmir.

The governor disclosed that officials are in contact with the rebels at least once a day through a go-between in Srinagar. "We are in touch with him by radio and telephone. We don't know if he's a militant or a local representative," he said.

The rebels, who beheaded a Norwegian tourist, are threatening to kill the others unless India frees 15 jailed separatist leaders. The Indian authorities yesterday set free 24 Kashmiri militants, but none were those named by Al-Faran.

Nearly all the Kashmiri secessionist groups fighting India have condemned Al-Faran's killing of the Norwegian and are demanding that the two Britons - Keith Mangan, 33, of Tooting and Paul Wells, 23, of Nottingham - along with an American and a German, be freed unconditionally.

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