May 3, 2006

Violence overshadows Kashmir peace talks

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
and Kashmiri separatists will try to revive a faltering peace
process on Wednesday in talks overshadowed by this week's
massacre of Hindus and rising violence in the disputed region.

Singh's meeting with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference,
an umbrella alliance of two dozen political separatist groups,
is the second since he took power in 2004.

But Hurriyat comes to New Delhi this time with more than a
little skepticism: they say the government has been dragging
its feet on promises made in the first round last September.

"Our basic thrust will be that the government of India
should be serious about resolving the issue of Kashmir,"
Hurriyat chief Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said on the eve of the

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is at the heart of nearly
60 years of enmity between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and
the cause of two of their three wars.

Both countries claim the region in full but rule it in
parts. An Islamist revolt against Indian rule in the region has
killed tens of thousands of people since 1989.

But peace moves by New Delhi and Islamabad after going to
the brink of war in 2002 have seen overall violence levels fall
and the establishment of transport links between the two

On Wednesday, the two countries agreed to launch in June a
second bus service connecting Poonch in Indian Kashmir with
Rawalkot on the Pakistani side, a joint statement said.

They also agreed to start in July a truck service between
Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the main cities of the two Kashmirs,
to help cross-border trade, it said. The two cities are already
linked by a bus service.


The talks took place under the shadow of a spike in
militant attacks in recent weeks in Kashmir.

Thirty-five Hindus were killed this week by militants in
India's Jammu and Kashmir, the mainly Hindu country's only
Muslim-majority state.

And, hours before Singh's talks, three militants and three
troops were killed in a fierce, night-long gunbattle in Kangan
village, about 30 km (20 miles) northeast of Srinagar, Indian
Kashmir's summer capital, a defense spokesman said.

Some Indian officials say the violence could aimed at
souring the mood ahead of the talks with the Kashmiri

The talks are expected to set the stage for a round-table
conference with separatist groups in Srinagar, on May 25. The
first round-table held in New Delhi in February was boycotted
by separatist groups including Hurriyat.

Singh assured Hurriyat in September he would cut the number
of troops in the region if violence and guerrilla incursions
from Pakistan ceased.

He also promised to review cases of people held under
anti-terrorism laws and ensure human rights were safeguarded.

But although the government has released some prisoners and
reduced the troop level by a few thousand, the separatists have
branded these as piecemeal gestures.

(Additional reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq in SRINAGAR)