Kashmiri separatists killed four Western hostages - including a Spokane man - five months after seizing them in July 1995, a newspaper reported Sunday, citing a jailed militant. The hostages were buried in the Himalayas, the paper said.
The account contradicts government claims that villagers continue to see the foreigners in the high mountain area where several groups are fighting to gain greater autonomy for Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.
Government officials were not available to comment on the report in The Indian Express, a respected English-language daily. The newspaper said it had obtained portions of a 120-page police report on the interrogation of captured rebel Nasir Mehmood.
But the wife of kidnapped Spokane psychologist Donald Hutchings said the report is months old and Indian officials have not been able to prove or disprove it.
“We take the report very seriously, but it’s second- or third-hand,” said Jane Schelly, a physical education teacher for Spokane School District 81. “The longer we go with no information and no demands (from the rebels), the more puzzling it becomes.”
Mehmood, 31, is a Pakistani militant arrested this year and held in a New Delhi jail, the newspaper said. It did not indicate the charges against him.
The Indian Express newspaper quoted Mehmood as saying the kidnappings were carried out by guerrillas of Harkat-ul-Ansar, one of a dozen militant groups operating in Kashmir, a disputed territory over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars.
Mehmood said Harkat-ul-Ansar wants Kashmir to break away from India and join Islamic Pakistan. Members include fighters from Kashmir, Pakistan and Turkey.
Mehmood said the group’s original plan was to abduct foreign engineers, but the abductors disobeyed orders and kidnapped six foreign tourists instead.
Mehmood said a new name, Al-Faran, was coined and the group demanded the release of 15 militants.
One captive, John Childs, of Simsbury, Conn., escaped within days. Mehmood said the abductors let him go because he had a problem with his leg and was unable to walk.
The beheaded body of another tourist, Hans Christian Ostro of Oslo, Norway, was found a month later. Mehmood was quoted as saying a guerrilla had killed Ostro after what the killer claimed was a message from Allah saying Ostro should be sacrificed.
Since then, little word has been available about the four missing hostages. Besides Hutchings, they are Keith Mangan, of Middlesborough, England; Paul Wells, of London; and Dirk Hasert, of Erfurt, Germany. Despite the alleged sightings, the Indian army has refrained from pursuing the hostages aggressively, citing fears for their safety.
Mehmood said they were killed on Dec. 13 last year when the group became nervous.
In September 1995, Mehmood said, he heard a radio report that Al-Faran and the hostages would not be allowed to cross into Pakistan. “This had a very demoralizing effect on Harkat-ul-Ansar,” he said.
He said militant leaders began to squabble. There were reports that Indian security forces were going to attack, and some of the guerrillas wanted to sneak back into Pakistan before snowfall cut off the land route.
That’s when leaders decided to execute the hostages, he said. They were buried in the Magam area of Kokarnag district. Indian troops have searched the area but have failed to find any graves.
Schelly said she met twice with Mehmood last summer when she traveled to India and Pakistan.
“One of the first things he said to me was that he was sorry for my situation,” she said.
While she found Mehmood credible, Schelly added that he admitted he was relating events he did not witness. He described a general area where the bodies supposedly were buried, but the area is large.
“The positive thing about it is the search did not reveal anything,” she said. “But the fact they did not find anything does not prove anything either way.”
In the months after Mehmood claims the hostages were killed, another rebel leader reportedly said they were alive. And residents of the area have reported spotting Westerners with armed men.
Schelly said hearing the various reports is like being on an emotional roller coaster. “I’m not going to fall for anything until it’s confirmed.” She said she hopes programs in India and Pakistan offering rewards for information will generate something that can be verified.
In England, former Beirut hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy joined a vigil for the hostages Sunday at a church in Blackburn.
“Anyone who has any information whatsoever about the Western hostages, please come forward and let us know,” said Waite.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this report.