Kashmiri rebels `will use hostages as shields'

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TIM MCGIRK

New Delhi

and MUKHTAR AHMED

Srinagar

Kashmiri rebels holding two Britons, an American and a German in the Himalayas may be planning to use the hostages as a human shield to ward off an assault on their mountain bases by Indian security forces, Indian officials warned yesterday.

An American, John Childs, who slipped away from the kidnappers on Saturday, is reported to have told Indian authorities that 15 gunmen are holding the remaining hostages in the vicinity of a Himalayan ice cave called Amarnath, which Hindus hold sacred. Thousands of Indian soldiers will soon be marching in to clear the area of Muslim rebels threatening to ambush Hindus who will be arriving on a pilgrimage in two weeks.

One senior Indian police officer said: "The militants seem to be in a mood to do something while the pilgrimage is taking place, and having the Western hostages up there is going to hamper the army's sweeping operation. That's exactly what the militants want."

In the first sign of hope since the Westerners were seized seven days ago, the All-Party Hurrieyet Conference - comprising Muslim clerics, prominent Kashmiris and representatives of the secessionist groups fighting against Indian rule - agreed to help secure the hostages' freedom. The organisation's chairman, a Muslim cleric, Maulvi Umar Farooq, said yesterday: "I've been authorised to establish direct or indirect contact, but first I'm trying to find out who [the kidnappers] are." He condemned the kidnapping as "un-Islamic", saying: "We will try to secure the tourists' release as soon as possible."

An unknown group calling itself Al-Faran has claimed responsibility for capturing the Westerners, who were trekking to a glacier at Pahalgam in southern Kashmir. But police officials claim Al-Faran is closely tied to a group called Harakat-ul-Ansar, many of whose followers are Afghans and Pakistanis who came to fight a holy war in Kashmir against India.

British, American and German diplomats in Srinagar, the Kashmir state capital, are also reported to be trying to open lines of communication to Al-Faran through clergymen and elders in the towns and villages near Pahalgam. In their only communique, Al-Faran on Sunday gave a deadline of 15 July for India to comply with its demand for 21 jailed rebel commanders to be released in exchange for the hostages. Otherwise, said the note, "India will be responsible for the consequences". So far India is refusing to free the militants.

Pakistan, which has claims on the Indian-occupied portion of Kashmir and gives moral and diplomatic support to the rebels, has condemned the kidnappings and urged Al-Faran to release the abducted tourists. When two Britons were seized last year by Harakat-ul-Ansar, pressure from Pakistan helped secure their release after 17 days. At the time, rebels said the two hikers were seized because they had strayed into their camp, but according to one well-informed source: "This time the kidnappers know exactly what they're doing. They want to extract as much publicity and political mileage as possible."

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