Kashmiri rebels have released photographs of their five Western hostages, which accompanied a warning that they will start killing the tourists unless the Indian authorities agree to release 21 jailed rebel commanders.
"If our demands are not met by July 15, we will execute them," the militants said in a note to newspapers in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital. The pictures showed the two Britons, Keith Mangan, 33, from London and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham, along with an American, a German and a Norwegian. They have their hands tightly bound with rope. They look gaunt and exhausted.
The note also ordered Indian troops to halt their searches in the Pahalgam mountain valley, 90 miles south of Srinagar, where the hikers were abducted. "If the government does not withdraw the troops, the government will be responsible for the consequences," it said.
Last night Mr Mangan's parents had heard of a picture and were anxiously waiting by the television to catch sight of it. "My daughter-in-law told me about the photograph and what was said along with it," said Mr Mangan's mother, Mavis. "The Foreign Office are keeping us informed but at the moment nobody is doing enough to help Keith."
Mr Wells's family released a statement expressing their concern at recent developments. They, too, were waiting to see the pictures. "The Foreign Office take these threats very seriously,'' the family said, "and are trying to enter into dialogue with the kidnappers to facilitate the early release of the hostages. Our thoughts and prayers are with them."
In New Delhi, the Indian authorities yesterday admitted that they have failed to make contact with the kidnappers, with only two days left before the Al-Faran group's deadline runs out. India so far is refusing to free the 21 commanders.
Senior officials doubted whether the army would agree to pull back from the Pahalgam valley, since its troops are under orders to protect thousands of Hindus who will be flocking to the valley soon on pilgrimage. Muslim militants have vowed to attack the Hindus who are going to worship at a sacred ice cave.
"The pilgrimage is going to happen, come what may,'' one official said. ''If five foreigners die, nobody in Delhi or Srinagar is going to bat an eyelid."
Previously unknown, Al-Faran is one of dozens of militant groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, which has a Muslim majority.
In the latest communique, Al-Faran for the first time claimed responsibility for seizing the German tourist, Dirk Hasert, and the Norwegian Hans Christian Ostro. The others were abducted earlier along with another American, John Childs, who escaped on Saturday, fleeing through the mountains in darkness.
The Independent learned yesterday that the British and American governments are discreetly trying to secure the hostages' release through Pakistan's Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.
Pakistan gives moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiri militants fighting India. In the meantime, friends and relatives of the hostages in Srinagar are expected to plead publicly to the kidnappers today not to kill their captives.
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