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Friends Pray For Release Of Spokane Man In India They Use Personal Computers To Get Limited Information From The Internet

For nearly a month, friends of Don Hutchings have struggled to find any news about the Spokane psychologist who remains captive to a shadowy guerrilla force in strife-torn northern India.

They use fax machines and personal computers linked to the Internet to learn whatever they can about an ancient feud a half a world away.

They have waited. And they have prayed.

“It’s real frustrating. The distance is incredible,” said Emily Gordon, a member of the Mountaineers Club who tries to monitor events in Jammu-Kashmir, a state in northern India.

Hutchings was taken hostage on July 4 while on an excursion with his wife, Arlington Elementary School physical education teacher Jane Schelly. Six other tourists were also with them. The captors, who call themselves Al-Faran, released Schelly, two other women and one man the following day. But they’ve threatened to kill Hutchings and three other men unless the Indian government releases 21 rebels from prison.

“It’s kind of hard to even figure out what they’re doing with these hostages. That’s kind of scary to me,” said Sheila McBride, who organized a non-denominational service on Wednesday to pray for the release of the captives. “We hope that all these people praying can lead to the release of Don and the others.”

Before the hostages were taken, Indian and U.S. government officials had never heard of Al-Faran. The group apparently wants independence for the state.

Some rebels want total independence. Others want to join Pakistan. Others want to remain part of India, but with more local control.

The state is coveted by Muslim-dominated Pakistan to the west. Since 1989, Kashmiri rebels have fought a guerrilla war of independence which has so far killed about 13,000.

Members of the Mountaineers Club scan the Internet for information on the Kashmiri situation. For each new development, a phone tree of about 20 people is activated, and the word is passed.

“We’re so used to being able to find things out quickly,” said Cindy Erler, a member of the club and a close friend of Hutchings and Schelly.

When the rebels a week ago told reporters in India that two of the hostages had been wounded in a gun battle with the Indian Army, the phone tree went into action. Friends checked the newspaper and television news stations for updates, and passed along each bit of news.

They breathed a little easier when the Indian government and the U.S. State Department denied that a battle had taken place.

Schelly, who remains in India, has called twice, and sent faxes several times, to provide updates to friends in Spokane.

Recently she reported that Indian officials believe the rebels might keep their hostages for several more weeks.

Al-Faran may be holding the hostages to call attention to their cause at a crucial time of the year, Schelly reported.

In August, thousands of Hindu pilgrims stream into Kashmir to make the journey to a sacred cave in the hills beyond the city of Pahalgam. It was in this area that Hutchings and the others were first taken captive.

To protect the pilgrims each year, the Indian government increases the military forces in the Kashmir Valley. Rebels often counter with acts of guerrilla violence in Hindu communities around the state. One person was killed and 42 wounded earlier this week in a bombing in the Hindu city of Jammu.

The Al-Faran group has not contacted negotiators from the Indian government since July 19. They have not contacted the news media, often used to make their demands public, since Monday.

But Schelly told friends in a recent fax that Indian officials believe the hostages are safe. They believe monsoon rains have hampered travel and communication for the rebels.

“She feels that they may hold the hostages through the end of the festival, which is Aug. 14,” Erler said.

Friends and neighbors of Hutchings and Schelly are urged not to try contacting Schelly directly. Erler suggested they send any messages to her. She will then relay the messages to a number in New Delhi that Schelly has asked remain private.

Messages can be sent to Erler at 4018 E. 15th, Spokane, 99223.

, DataTimes