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As Kidnaping Crisis Goes On, Indian Officials Cling to Hope : Kashmir: Execution deadline for four captive Westerners passes without a deal with abductors. Merchants shut down to protest earlier slaying.

August 17, 1995|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SRINAGAR, India — As Kashmiris shut their shops and bazaar stalls to protest the gruesome slaying of a Western tourist, Indian officials Wednesday said they did not know if four other captive foreigners, including an American, were still alive after an execution deadline set by their abductors expired.

"In the absence of any adverse report, we assume they are safe," K. B. Jandial, information director of the Jammu and Kashmir state government, told a news conference. "One has to be optimistic."

Here in the troubled Indian state's summer capital, hundreds of shops pulled down their shutters or shut their doors to demonstrate outrage at the killing of Hans Ostro, 27, a tourist from Norway. His decapitated body was found Sunday.

The previously unknown Al Faran group abducted Ostro and the other tourists as they trekked through the mountains southeast of Srinagar last month. The Muslim kidnapers warned that the remaining foreigners would die if India did not release 15 jailed Kashmiri militants by Tuesday.

In a statement delivered to the British Broadcasting Corp. here Wednesday evening, Al Faran denounced the protest strike, which was called by an umbrella group of Kashmiri separatist organizations and which clearly showed how little backing Al Faran has among ordinary Kashmiris. "We ourselves know what we have to do," an Al Faran spokesman countered angrily.

The shadowy group said it would explain in the next few days why it has victimized the visiting foreigners, and it asked "freedom fighters" not to be misled by its opponents. "We are Kashmiri Muslims, not foreign agents," the Urdu-language message ended.

In the town of Anantnag south of Srinagar, many shops closed for the day, despite a printed leaflet from Al Faran warning that anyone complying with the strike would be dealt with as an "infidel."

The leaflet, tacked to a telephone pole a few feet from a mosque, complained that the death of one Christian visitor to Kashmir could spark protests but that Kashmiri critics were silent when Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Chechnya were slain by Christians.

"I support the moujahedeen Kashmiri freedom fighters but not terrorists," one Srinagar resident, Muhammad Rafik, 15, said when asked how he felt about Al Faran.

Throughout the six-week kidnaping crisis, Indian authorities have ruled out a prisoners-for-hostages swap. Jandial said officials were in contact with Al Faran by telephone Wednesday, but he refused to divulge details. He did say that "no feelers" were put out about an exchange.

Donald Hutchings, 42, of Spokane, Wash., was one of the first of the visitors to be kidnaped, on July 4. A photograph and statement released by the kidnapers in late July claimed he had been shot and wounded along with Keith Mangan, 33, an Englishman, in a firefight with Indian forces. Indian authorities said the two may have been wounded in an escape attempt.

A second Briton and a German were also kidnaped. A second American who was abducted escaped.

Indian authorities, and some Kashmiris, have said they believe Al Faran is a cover for a Pakistan-based Islamic guerrilla group, Harkat-ul-Ansar, which abducted two British hikers in the Kashmiri mountains last year and released them 17 days later.

But the mystery over the group's identity deepened when Harkat-ul-Ansar released a statement Wednesday flatly denying that it had anything to do with the latest kidnapings and implicating agents of the Indian government.

Indian officials reacted with scorn but said they did not issue a denial because of policy. "We don't comment on statements from a militant organization," Kashmir Police Inspector Gen. P. S. Gill said. "We don't recognize them."

Wednesday's strike closed most shops in Srinagar's business center. However, it was not as widely observed as a similar shutdown held the previous day, the anniversary of Indian independence in 1947.

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