Message from Kashmir: Tense, grimy but still alive

Photograph raises hope for families of hostages

Tim McGirk New Delhi
Wednesday 23 August 1995 23:02


New Delhi

"Catherine, see you soon," was all that Paul Wells, one of the British hostages trapped in the mountains of Kashmir, was able to tell his girlfriend before his rebel captors snatched away the tape-recorder.

To the families of the two British and the lone American and German hostages who are in New Delhi, the release of photographs and taped messages from their loved ones by Al-Faran rebels on Tuesday gave room for a little hope.

Western diplomats and Indian police still express some caution. One Indian official, noting that the date on the tapes and photograph was 18 August, said: "Now we know that the hostages were alive last Friday. We don't have proof that they're still alive today.''

Yet for the families and girlfriends, the glimpse of the four, looking tense, grimy but very much alive, was a far more encouraging sight than the last batch of photographs released in mid-July. Those showed the other Briton, Keith Mangan, swathed in bandages and lying on a dirt floor with pills scattered around.

Al-Faran said Mr Mangan, from Tooting, south London, had been wounded during a gun battle with Indian troops, a claim denied by the army. One Indian official commented: "Either Mr Mangan made a miraculous recovery or the first photo was faked to scare us.''

In virtually identical messages, each hostage was allowed to say he was fit and healthy and to pass on his love to his family. Mr Wells said: "My name is Paul Wells. Today is the 18th of August 1995. I am fit and healthy. I have no problems. Catherine, I love you. See you soon.'' Mr Mangan said: "My name is Keith Mangan. Today is the 18th of August. I am healthy. I have no problems. Julie, I love you very much. Please pass on my love to my family.''

The crude black-and-white photographs of the hostages, wearing heavy jumpers against the Himalayan cold, were carefully framed to exclude any background which might give a clue to their whereabouts.

Negotiators and Western diplomats dispatched to Kashmir were encouraged yesterday by Al-Faran's decision to accept, through a go-between, a set of high-powered walkie-talkies which would enable them to talk directly to the government.

One official said: "Their taking the radios has convinced us that the foreigners are still unharmed and Al-Faran wants to negotiate. That's far more important than the photographs.''

Al-Faran is demanding the release of 15 top Kashmiri rebel commanders. It has taken India years to capture them and on Tuesday the home minister, SB Chavan, assured the Indian parliament that "there is no question of releasing any hard-core militants".

Sources close to the negotiations say, however, that Mr Chavan's stance was to calm right-wing Hindu politicians opposed to any deal with the Muslim rebels. Privately, they say, India may be prepared to release perhaps four or five Kashmiris and grant them safe passage to Pakistan.

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