In a possible breakthrough in the Kashmiri hostage saga, the Indian army has killed the hardline leader of the rebel group that has been holding two Britons, a German and an American hostage for more than five months.
In a communique issued yesterday in Srinagar, capital of the disputed state of Kashmir, the rebel group al-Faran acknowledged that Abdul Hamid al- Turki, its commander-in-chief, died on Monday week in a gun battle with Indian troops. Official sources described al-Turki as "hard core" and "the least flexible" of the al-Faran guerrilla commanders.
Al-Faran said that after the shoot-out, the army had "arrested" three of the Western hostages while the fourth had "gone missing". This was categorically denied by the Indian government spokesman, Ram Mohan Rao. "It's absolutely false. The hostages were nowhere near the operation carried out by the army," he said. Western diplomats had earlier secured a promise from the Indian security forces to avoid rescue operations which might endanger the captives' lives. This promise is still in force, government officials said.
The rebel claim that they had "lost" the hostages to the Indians - and the Indian denials - led to fears that they might have been harmed in retaliation for al-Turki's death. But police officials say the four fair- skinned hostages, disguised in Kashmiri robes, were spotted by villagers on Sunday not far from Anantnag, a town in southern Kashmir, several days after the firefight in which al-Turki died.
The hostages were said to be in good shape but guarded by at least 16 gunmen. A month ago, al-Faran abducted a doctor to care for the four, one of whom was said to be suffering from severe frostbite after being forced to march through blizzards.
The death of al-Turki is a hard blow to the Kashmir rebels, official sources said in New Delhi. Three other rebels, wounded and captured in the same battle, told army interrogators that the surviving kidnappers were tired and anxious. Now they have no commander.
"The militants said there was a possibility that the abductors might either abandon the hostages or hand them over to another militant group who would release them," an official said. India accuses Pakistan of covertly aiding al-Faran and other Kashmiri rebel factions.
Indian officials said that on 4 December the al-Faran chief and seven of his men had left the hostages under guard several kilometres away, near an abandoned tourist resort at Kokarnag, to come down the mountains, either for supplies or to link up with other rebels, when they were ambushed by an army patrol. "The hostages were nowhere near," Mr Rao insisted.
Al-Faran's claims yesterday that at least three of the Westerners were being secretly held in custody by the Indian army has left many observers baffled. "We don't know if there's anything substantive that has happened after the death of al-Turki or whether it's just both sides - the Indians and al-Faran - jostling for position," one observer said.
Inexplicably, al-Faran released a second contradictory communique yesterday in which it renewed its death threat against the hostages. The group is demanding that India free 15 jailed Kashmiri militants in exchange for two Britons, Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, along with American Donald Hutchings and German Dirk Hasert.
The four were trekking in the Himalayas last summer when they were kidnapped by al-Faran, one of many armed Muslim separatist groups leading an uprising against Indian rule in the Himalayan state. More than 20,000 people have been killed since the revolt flared six years ago.
"The kidnappers are trying one last attempt to get their men freed," an Indian official said, ''but we think it's encouraging that the al- Faran are clearly trying to keep the hostages alive."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies