India may swap rebels for Kashmir hostages

India gave the first indication yesterday that it might be willing to set free several jailed Kashmiri commanders in exchange for the lives of five Westerners captured by rebels in the Himalayas.

Kashmiri rebels had threatened to execute their five hostages tonight unless India agreed to release 21 jailed Kashmiri commanders. A senior police officer in Srinagar told the Independent: "Serious discussions are going on and we are not rigid. We may release four or five militants - but not the 21 they are demanding." India has so far refused to make any concessions to the kidnappers.

Indian authorities for the past week have been trying frantically to open lines of communications with the mysterious al-Faran kidnappers. Dozens of Muslim militant groups are fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, but police had never heard of al- Faran until 4 July when Western tourists were seized while trekking down from a Hima-layan glacier. The hostages are two Britons - Keith Mangan,33, from Tooting, and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham - along with an American, a German, and a Norwegian.

Only on Saturday, the Independent has learned, was a police chief, Mohammed Amin Shah, from Anantnag, a town in southern Kashmir, able to establish indirect contact with the kidnappers. The officer, who is respected by Kashmiri militants and Muslim clergymen, successfully negotiated with rebels last year for the release of two British captives, Kim Housego and David Mackie. Police expressed relief that now negotiations were under way, the Kashmiri militants would be less likely to harm their Western prisoners.

British and US diplomats are also appealing to Pakistan, which has influence over the Kashmiri militants, to help.

A dozen police search parties are reportedly combing the dense fir forests and snowy mountainsides of the Pahalgam valley where the trekkers were grabbed by a gang of 15 armed rebels. Police sources said the gang might have marched their captives at gunpoint over icy 16,000ft Himalayan passes to hide them in the forests of Doda, a region under rebel control. The kidnappers are reportedly in radio contact with senior al-Faran commanders hiding in Srinagar and elsewhere in the Kashmir valley.

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