Search for bodies of Western hostages begins in Kashmir

A search began yesterday in the Kashmiri mountains for the bodies of four Western hostages, including two Britons, said to have been executed by rebels. A rebel commander, caught by the Indian authorities, claimed that the British tourists, along with a German and an American, were shot dead in December because they were slowing the kidnappers' escape from their pursuers through the snowy Himalayas.

Indian security forces, with experts from Scotland Yard, the FBI and the German Federal Police, yesterday began surveying the dense pine forests near Margam village, southern Kashmir, for any trace of the bodies.

Indian authorities said that the focus of the hunt for the bodies had been narrowed down to "several square kilometres" of forest after the captured militant commander, Nazir Mohammed, had been flown over ravines and mountains above Margam on Friday. Official sources said that the search might last for two and a half weeks.

In New Delhi, a British High Commission spokesman said: "We still haven't given up hope that they're alive. We're following up other leads as well."

But the Foreign Office has notified the families of the two British hostages - Keith Mangan, 32, from Middlesbrough, and Paul Wells, 23, a Nottingham student - that the testimony of the captured rebel commander seemed credible enough to begin scouring forests for the tourists' graves.

At least 50 Indian soldiers are helping the Western experts, as well as giving them protection against a possible attack by Kashmiri insurgents. The tourists were kidnapped by Al-Faran rebels while trekking last July in the Kashmiri Himalayas. Al-Faran, an extremist Islamic group, was demanding the release of 15 Kashmiris held in Indian jails, but India refused to comply.

Western diplomats who joined in four interrogation sessions with Mr Nazir in the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, said that the rebel commander did not personally witness the hostages' execution. But, according to his confession, the fate of the four hostages was sealed on 3 December when an Indian army patrol stumbled upon a band of Al-Faran insurgents and opened fire, killing the rebel chief, Al- Turki, and several others.

The two Britons, the German and the American were "only a hundred metres away" when the fighting erupted. While Al- Turki and several other rebels held off the attacking Indian soldiers, the remaining insurgents scrambled into the mountains with the hostages. It was later in December, according to the captured militant, that orders were given for the hostages to be "shot and buried".

The hostages had been stricken by snowblindness and gastroenteritis, and one of them had injured his leg. By December, though, they had recovered.Still, as one official explained: "There is no way the hostages could have kept up with these hardened mountain men. They were slowing them down."