Mystery of offer to replace Kashmir hostages

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The Independent Online
Mystery surrounds two Germans who have offered to replace the hostages held in Kashmir. Four tourists - two Britons, Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, American Donald Hutchings and German Dirk Hasert - were abducted by Muslim militants in south Kashmir on 4 July last year.

Peter von Zschinsky - who described himself as president of United Humanitas Nothilfe (UHN), a German human rights organisation - and his deputy, Jurgen Sick, arrived in Kashmir this week, saying that they were prepared to take the place of the four hostages. "We want to end their agony," said Mr von Zschinsky,

But German sources say that Mr von Zschinsky is a freelance journalist. He represents himself, they say, as a Hemingway-style figure reporting from war-zones. Yet among German professional photographers he is hardly known, and there are doubts as to his seriousness.

Mr von Zschinsky said he has worked for Focus magazine in Germany. Susanne Wittlich, an editor at Focus, told Associated Press that he once worked as a stringer for the magazine but was dropped because of complaints about his work.

Last year, he appeared in a talk show on German world service television, after his return from Serb-occupied territories in Croatia, showing bruises and claiming he had been incarcerated and tormented by Serbs. Mr von Zschinsky has been known to vary the emphasis he puts on his two roles as journalist and human rights activist according to circumstance; his relief organisation, however, is hardly known in Germany.

Mr von Zschinsky and his colleague said yesterday that they had managed to contact Al-Faran, the group holding the four westerners, on their satellite phone. "We got four calls from Al-Faran ... We will wait for their next call and then we can make the arrangements. But the Indian government has to allow us to go alone to the meeting point," Mr von Zschinsky said. "I hope the meeting with Al-Faran will take place within one or two days." A diplomat at the German Embassy in New Delhi said the German government does not support their mission.

n Srinagar (Reuter) - The Indian army yesterday declared a 24-hour unilateral ceasefire in its operations against guerrillas in Jammu and Kashmir, the first in the six-year insurgency. The ceasefire is intended to allow the Muslim festival of Eid to go ahead "without fear".