Kashmiri Islamic guerrillas holding four Western hostages have warned that one of them is critically ill, and that his relatives should return to the region prepared to collect his body.
The Al-Faran group, which has been holding two Britons, an American and a German for more than four months, did not say which hostage might be near death. But the American, Donald Hutchings, may have lost both his feet to frostbite and one Briton, Keith Mangan, 33, from London, is said be suffering from exposure and injuries after a fall. This week Al-Faran warned Indian officials that the second Briton, Paul Wells, 23, a Nottingham student, was also ill.
Since they were kidnapped, the men have been forced to march for weeks over icy passes and threatened with death. The captors have shown they are not bluffing: a fifth hostage, a Norwegian, had his head chopped off.
Efforts to secure their release through negotiation, according to Indian officials, may be "gathering momentum". But the Indians' optimism has been misplaced before. Al-Faran cut off all communication with Indian negotiators in Srinagar two months ago and only renewed contact several days ago.
Al-Faran - one of many Muslim guerrilla groups leading a five-year revolt against Indian rule in Kashmir - are demanding that India release up to 10 Kashmir militants, but India is refusing to let any of these "terrorists" go.
Indian officials say that during the communication gap, British, US and German diplomats were able to open "parallel lines" to Al-Faran to plead for the hostages' release. The officials, who know the four are in villages about 60 miles from Srinagar, say the guerrillas realise no more political advantage can be gained by holding them.
The hostages are so well-guarded that any rescue attempt, officials said, would seal their fate. The kidnappers' proximity to a town is seen as a sign that they want to keep the captives alive.
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