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An American and three other Westerners kidnapped in India's troubled Kashmir state three years ago appear to have been killed, a local news agency quoted an Indian security official as saying Friday.

The comment from E.N. Rammohan, chief of India's paramilitary Border Security Force, marked the first time a top official publicly expressed doubt that the hostages were alive.

"We have no conclusive evidence to prove that they are dead. But from the circumstances, it appears they have been killed a long time back," Rammohan was quoted by Press Trust of India as saying in New Delhi.

The hostages are Donald Hutchings of Spokane, Wash.; Dirk Hasert of Erfurt, Germany; Keith Mangan of Middlesborough, England; and Paul Wells of London.

A Pakistan-based separatist group, Al Faran, claimed responsibility for the abductions in 1995 and demanded the release of 21 Muslim guerrilla leaders in exchange. The Indian government refused.

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