Militants offered Monday to release two ailing men among their four Western hostages in the Himalayas in return for freedom for a jailed comrade, a government spokesman said.
Although the rebels did not say which hostages they wished to trade, they previously described Spokane psychologist Donald Hutchings and a British captive as being ill.
India refused previous demands for a swap, but this time asked the kidnappers to get back in touch with their negotiator today to hear the government’s response, spokesman Abdul Rasheed said.
The Al-Faran Kashmiri separatist group made its offer in a four-minute telephone conversation Monday, Rasheed said.
Hutchings’ wife, Jane Schelly, returned to Spokane last month and has refused public comment except to ask that the hostages be released. She remained on the job Monday, teaching PE at Arlington Elementary School, sources said.
Indian officials were alarmed by last week’s announcement from the kidnappers that one of the four hostages was critically ill, and that his relatives should be prepared to collect his body.
Again, the group did not specify the hostage. Friends of Hutchings, who have been frustrated by the lack of information and the length of the crisis, said they hoped Al-Faran was “crying wolf” about the hostages’ health.
Earlier in the summer, the group released pictures showing Hutchings in a bloody bandage after claiming their stronghold was attacked by Indian troops. The Indian government said there was no such gunbattle.
Since July 4, they have kidnapped six Western tourists hiking in the mountains. The other American hostage among the six escaped within days, and the kidnappers beheaded a Norwegian hostage in August.
Besides Hutchings, 42, the remaining captives are Britons Keith Mangan, 33, and Paul Wells, 23, and German Dirk Hasert, 26.
The kidnappers repeatedly have taken medical workers to examine the hostages.