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Families of Men Held Captive by Kashmiri Rebels Still Hopeful

There has been no word on four Western hostages' fate in nearly a year. Their wives plan another fact-finding mission to volatile region.

September 14, 1996|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SRINAGAR, India — Next month, a small group of Western women will again fly into the midst of one of the world's longest-running territorial conflicts, their hearts laden with hope as well as despair.

Since July 1995, their husbands, kidnap victims in the mountainous Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, have been missing. For nearly a year, there has been no confirmed news of their whereabouts, or even whether they are alive.

The men--an American, two Britons and a German--were abducted by Islamic guerrillas as they trekked on vacation through the stunningly beautiful landscape of northern India, where a separatist insurrection broke out in 1989.

For the families of the vanished tourists, a once-distant news event--the troubles in Kashmir--took on awful, daily immediacy. "Not knowing what's happened, I've been through the roller coaster, up and down, up and down," Jane Schelly, 41, an elementary school physical education teacher in Spokane, Wash., said in a telephone interview from her home.

Schelly was by the side of her husband, psychologist and mountaineering buff Donald Hutchings, when he was taken prisoner. The vacationing couple had pitched their tent beside a trail in the Pahalgam area of Jammu and Kashmir and were relaxing for the day when a band of armed men showed up. The gunmen took Hutchings, supposedly so his passport could be checked, and told his wife to go to another campsite two miles off and await his return, she says.

Hutchings, who will turn 44 in November if he is alive, never came back.

"We never even got a chance to say goodbye," his wife said.

The previously unknown militant group, calling itself Al-Faran, also grabbed a Norwegian, Hans Christian Ostro, 27; Britons Paul Wells, 23, and Keith Mangan, 33; and Dirk Hasert, 26, of Germany. Another American, John Childs, 41, of Simsbury, Conn., managed to escape.

In exchange for their captives' release, the abductors demanded freedom for jailed militants who had fought for the separatist cause. When the Indians and the hostages' own governments closed ranks to oppose any deal, Al-Faran punctuated its demand with blood. The kidnappers killed Ostro, the Norwegian, and left his beheaded body in the forest.

Since November, when talks with Al-Faran conducted by Indian officials by telephone and radio broke down, there have been unconfirmed sightings of the hostages in the wilds but nothing solid. Nazar Ahmed, an arrested militant, said he heard the Westerners had been executed and buried in December. But FBI and Scotland Yard experts used tracking dogs to search the Magam forests of southern Jammu and Kashmir, the area mentioned by Ahmed. The experts found nothing.

"I have no evidence that they are alive or dead," Lt. Gen. D.D. Saklani, the advisor on home affairs to Jammu and Kashmir's governor, said this week.

Since the Westerners disappeared, India has had considerable success in combating the insurgency in the country's only mostly Muslim state. This month, legislative elections are taking place for the first time since 1987. With the revival of self-government, state Chief Secretary Ashok Kumar said, there will be "shoulders for the people to cry on."

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The hostages' families are their own source of emotional support. Next month, Schelly said, they plan to return to India to hunt for more information and press officials and embassies to do all they can to find their loved ones. For Schelly, it will be her third such mission to India. Of the past 13 months, she has spent 6 1/2 here. She also traveled to Pakistan to appeal to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose country lays rival claim to the Kashmir region and whose government is widely believed to arm and train the rebel fighters in Jammu and Kashmir.

"I personally don't care where the information comes from. I want to know where my husband is, if he is alive or dead," Schelly says. "And if he is dead, I want to know where he is buried."

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