A Spokane psychologist is the hostage of an obscure militant Muslim group in the beautiful but dangerous Indian state of Kashmir.
Don Hutchings and three other Westerners are being held by a group calling itself J.K. Al-Faran, according to reports by the U.S. State Department and Indian police.
Hutchings’ wife, Jane Schelly, also was held briefly by the militants but was released Wednesday morning. Schelly, a physical education teacher at Arlington Elementary School, was taken to Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir.
The couple had been trekking through the Himalaya Mountains when they were found by the militants.
News of the kidnapping left members of the Spokane Mountaineers Club anxiously awaiting details Thursday. Schelly, 40, is a past president of the club; Hutchings, 42, a longtime Spokane resident whose father lives in Coeur d’Alene, taught its mountain-climbing classes.
Jackie McManus, another former club president, said she remains hopeful.
“Don is one of the strongest, most stable persons I know. He knows a lot about the culture and the religion” of the region, McManus said.
Hutchings is a neuropsychologist who specializes in therapy for persons who have suffered serious brain injuries, said George Neal, a longtime friend.
“He’s very astute at dealing with dangerous situations,” Neal said.
Hutchings and Schelly left on a five-week trip to India on June 16. They originally had planned to meet Cindy and Bill Erler of Spokane in New Delhi in late June.
But a few weeks ago, the Erlers had trouble lining up a replacement baby sitter for their two children and had to cancel their trip.
“We didn’t consider it lucky at the time, but I do now,” Cindy Erler said Thursday afternoon. “If we had gone, we would have been there right now with Jane and Don.”
Hutchings and Schelly, along with two other Americans, three Britons and a Canadian had finished a day-long trek through the Himalayan foothills on July 4. They were gathered around a fire on that evening when heavily armed militants approached their campsite.
The gunmen stole their binoculars and money, then checked their passports, the tourists’ guide, Ghalam Nabih, told The Associated Press.
On Wednesday morning, the militants released Schelly, two British women and the Canadian man, who was ill. With their guides, they went to Pehalgam, and later to Srinagar, with a letter stating the rebels demands.
The freed captives were under guard in Srinagar, being questioned by U.S. and British embassy officials, The Associated Press reported. They refused to talk with reporters.
The militant group apparently wants the Indian government to release several people it has in prison. But a State Department representative in Washington, D.C., said Thursday it was unclear whether those prisoners were members of Al-Faran, or just sympathetic to their cause.
American officials don’t yet know what the group’s cause is.
“This group is previously unknown to us,” said the State Department official, speaking on the condition that he not be named.
There is a wide spectrum among Muslim militants in Kashmir, the official said. Some want full independence from Hindu-dominated India. Others want to remain part of India, but with more autonomy for the state government. Others want Kashmir joined to Muslim-controlled Pakistan.
“Indian authorities assured us they are doing everything they can to bring about the release of the hostages,” the official said.
The Associated Press reported from Srinagar that hundreds of Indian troops, supported by helicopters, were scouring the country-side for the militants and their hostages.
But Cindy Erler, who has traveled through the region, said rebels who are familiar with the mountainous terrain would have little trouble avoiding troops from India.
Muslim rebels have been battling for independence since 1989 for Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in mostly Hindu India. More than 11,600 people have been killed in the uprising.
Prior to the uprising, the region was a favorite for international tourists who climbed the Himalayan foothills and stayed on houseboats on Dal Lake in Srinagar.
But the State Department has for years advised Americans to avoid the region because of the civil war.
Two hostage situations in Kashmir last year ended with captives being released unharmed.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos; Map of area
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Jim Camden Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.