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Kashmiri Separatists to Consider Indian Offer of Peace Talks

By Y.P. Rajesh
Reuters
Thursday, November 18, 2004; Page A29

SRINAGAR, India, Nov. 18 -- Kashmir's leading separatist political group said it would meet Thursday to discuss plans to resume peace talks with the Indian government, a day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reaffirmed his desire for peace through dialogue.

Singh, who began his first visit to the disputed, insurgency-torn region on Wednesday, vowed to hold talks with all Kashmiri groups without conditions. Singh also said he was open to new ideas to end a 15-year guerrilla campaign against Indian rule in Kashmir that has killed tens of thousands of people.

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The Struggle for Kashmir

Maulana Abbas Ansari, a senior leader of the All Parties Hurriyet Conference, an umbrella alliance of two dozen Kashmiri political groups, said: "We will meet to decide if we want to continue to talk." The organization's meeting, to be held in Srinagar, also would formulate a response to Singh's proposals to "win the hearts and minds of people" through a $5 billion economic development plan, Ansari said.

In his comments Wednesday, Singh stopped short of making a firm commitment to allow political separatist leaders to visit Pakistan before resuming talks stalled since he took office in May, a key demand of the leaders to carry the negotiations forward. He also ruled out any redrawing of India's borders, dismissing proposals floated by Pakistan to try to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

"I have extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan. Our doors are open to everyone who wants to talk to me calmly," Singh said at a public meeting in Srinagar. "My mind is open to new ideas. If this is based on good intentions, I have place in my heart for all of you."

Kashmir is at the heart of more than half a century of bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan. Both countries claim the Muslim-majority region and have gone to war twice over it.

Since a revolt against Indian rule erupted in 1989, tens of thousands of people have been killed across Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training Muslim guerrillas to fight in Kashmir, but relations between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors have warmed since they resumed efforts to make peace last year.

Moving forward with the peace initiative of his Hindu-nationalist predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Singh has pursued talks with Pakistan. Last week, in a surprise gesture, he announced a cut in Indian troops in Kashmir. Pakistan, whose prime minister is to visit New Delhi next week, has welcomed the troop reduction.

Noor Ahmad Baba, a political science professor at Kashmir University, said that while Singh appeared to be well-meaning and his development plan for Kashmir was impressive, his visit to the region had failed to break any new political ground.

"On the one hand, he says talks will be unconditional. But at the same time, he says that India's boundaries will not be redrawn or that Kashmiri groups should not set conditions like wanting to meet Pakistani leaders before resuming talks," Baba said.


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