Relatives plead for release of hostages

Anxious diplomats hope women's appeal will persuade kidnappers to extend ultimatum

New Delhi

With time running out on the Kashmiri rebels' ultimatum that they will execute five hostages within 24 hours unless India meets their demands, relatives of the captured foreigners issued a tearful plea for their freedom.

Julie Mangan, wife of one of the hostages, Keith, aged 33,from Tooting, south London, cried as she told a press conference in Srinagar that "in the name of God, please let our loved ones go. We miss them very much."

Catherine Moseley, aged 21, girlfriend of the other British hostage, Paul Wells, aged 23, from Blackburn, Lancashire, said: "This is very hard for me, but I just want to say how worried I am about Paul and the other hostages. We have no quarrel with the people of Kashmir and Islam, so I appeal to the people holding our loved ones to please let them go."

In Kashmir, British and US diplomats were hoping that the women's plea would convince the kidnappers at least to extend the deadline. The diplomats have reportedly failed to open a line of contact with the guerrillas, but they are exploring the possibility that other sympathetic militant leaders might act as go-betweens.

For the first time since the two Britons, an American, a German and a Norwegian were captured by a Kashmiri separatist group called Al-Faran, a photograph of the hostages was delivered to newspapers and news agencies in Srinagar. Enclosed with the photograph was an ominous message: "If our demands are not met by 15 July, we will kill them."

The Islamic rebels, who are fighting Indian rule in mainly Muslim Kashmir, are demanding that authorities free 20 captured guerrilla leaders, and that soldiers combing the valleys for the Westerners be pulled back immediately. "If the Indian government makes advances, it will be responsible for the consequences," the note said.

India is refusing to free the jailed rebel commanders. Police sources in Srinagar said the army had moved 8,000 troops into the Pahalgam valley, near where the Westerners were seized, but was under orders not to search any higher for several days. The hostages, who are being held by at least 15 gunmen, are thought to be either hidden in the forests of fir and birch trees or higher, among the snowy Himalayan peaks.

For six years, Muslim militants have been fighting an estimated 500,000 security forces in the disputed state of Kashmir. Human rights groups estimate that more than 20,000 people have been killed since the rebellion flared up.

Several Westerners have been abducted during this uprising, including two Britons last year, who were trekking in the same place where the latest kidnapping occurred. Despite many death threats, so far only one Westerner, an Israeli tourist, has been killed by his captors.

n Peshawar (Reuter) - Pakistani authorities said they had put pressure on the kidnappers of two German engineers, seized on 26 June with a third compatriot and a Pakistani driver outside Peshawar, which brought about their release unharmed.