In a grisly escalation of the Kashmiri conflict, Muslim militants decapitated one of five Western hostages and threatened to kill the others, including an American, unless India frees jailed separatists within 48 hours, Indian officials said Sunday.
It was the first killing of a Western hostage since a widespread insurgency broke out five years ago in the troubled Indian state, a once-popular holiday spot known as the “Switzerland of the East.”
The headless body of Hans Christian Ostro, a 27-year-old from Oslo, was found by a woman gathering firewood during the early morning hours Sunday in a village in the Anantnag district of southern Jammu and Kashmir state, official sources said.
A note stuffed into Ostro’s shirt pocket said the Norwegian tourist, who was taken hostage July 8 by the shadowy Al Faran group while trekking through the Himalayas, was slain because India refused to release 15 imprisoned insurgents.
If the prisoners are not freed within two days, “the other hostages will meet the same fate,” the note said, according to police.
The deadline appears to expire Tuesday, Indian Independence Day, a date on which Kashmiri authorities were already bracing for trouble. The All-Party Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of more than 35 Kashmiri political and cultural organizations, has called for a general strike that day.
Since the insurgency erupted in India’s only Muslim-majority state in 1990, more than 20,000 people have been killed, according to police and local authorities. The anti-Indian groups differ in their goal, with some seeking unification with neighboring Pakistan and others total independence.
News reports from Kashmir quoted police as saying that Al Faran’s name was carved into Ostro’s chest and that his head was found about 20 yards from his body.
The Norwegian’s remains were taken to a military hospital in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, about 35 miles away.
The killing of a Western tourist, and the possibility of yet more killings, pose new problems for Indian authorities, who had been flatly ruling out any deal with Al Faran but also vowing not to try to free the hostages by force.
On at least four other occasions since 1991, Westerners have been taken captive in Jammu and Kashmir. Each time, however, the hostages were freed unharmed or escaped. In 1992, an Israeli tourist was killed as he resisted an abduction attempt.
Expressing “deep shock” over Ostro’s death, Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao directed the Home Ministry to continue its efforts to get the surviving hostages released. Meanwhile, Rajesh Pilot, his minister of state for internal security, charged that Ostro had died “at the behest of our enemies across the border.” He demanded that Pakistan be blacklisted as a state supporting terrorism.
But in Islamabad, the Pakistani government expressed “deep shock and anguish” over the killing and called for the immediate release of the other hostages. In New Delhi, the U.S. Embassy also demanded that the four be freed “immediately and unconditionally.”
Two American tourists--Donald Hutchings, 42, of Spokane, Wash., and John Childs, 41, of Simsbury, Conn.--were the first to be kidnaped, on July 4, as they trekked through the mountainous Anantnag district.
Four days later, Ostro was taken, and Childs managed to escape.
The other tourists captured in July are Paul Wells, 23, of London; Keith Mangan, 33, of Middlesbrough, England, and Dirk Hasert, 26, of Erfurt, Germany.
In Urdu-language newspaper advertisements, relatives of the five appealed over the weekend for their release “in the name of Allah.” Some leading Kashmiri militants, including Mohammed Yasin Malik, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, also appealed to Al Faran to let the foreigners go.
The abduction of the Western trekkers was the first act claimed by Al Faran, a group Indian authorities believe is linked to the Pakistan-based Muslim guerrilla organization Harkat-ul-Ansar, which claimed responsibility for four bombs that exploded during a Hindu pilgrimage in Kashmir that ended last week.
In late July, Al Faran said Hutchings and Mangan had been wounded in a shootout between guerrillas and government forces, and it released photographs that showed the American wearing a bloodied bandage on his right side.
In a videocassette made available by Al Faran, Hutchings said there had been a skirmish with Indian forces and that Mangan was in very critical condition and had a broken leg.
Kashmiri authorities have denied any clash.
On Thursday, state Gov. K. V. Krishna Rao claimed that the hostages were wounded when militants fired on them as they tried to escape.