May 25, 2006

Indian PM sees “ray of hope” after Kashmir talks

By Palash Kumar

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh ended talks in Kashmir on Thursday promising to set up
new groups to look at the region's problems but making no
significant headway in easing the dispute.

"I am especially confident that I see light at the end of
the tunnel, there is a ray of hope..." Singh told reporters
after two days of talks with mostly pro-India Kashmiri
politicians in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir.

He promised to set up five committees, including one which
would look at "the special status" of Kashmir -- the usual way
of referring to giving more autonomy to the Himalayan region.

But with leaders of the main political separatist alliance,
the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, boycotting the
talks and Pakistan-based militant groups condemning them, Singh
made no significant headway in easing the dispute.

The Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant group based in Pakistani
Kashmir, said they would have to be involved for there to be
real negotiations. India refuses to talk to the militants.

"As long as the mujahideen leadership is not included in
the dialogue process, peace will remain a distant dream,"
spokesman Junaid-ul-Islam said in a statement carried in local

Militants had vowed to disrupt the talks by launching a
series of attacks in Srinagar.

On Thursday, three Indians, including a child, were killed
when a grenade was thrown at a tourist bus, bringing to 15 the
numbers killed since they threatened to disrupt the talks.

Singh used his visit to encourage Kashmiri rebels in
Pakistani Kashmir to come home.

"The general principle is that those young people who have
been misled and have gone to the other side and now they want
to lead a life of normalcy, there should be scope to permit
that option," he said on Wednesday.

He urged troops, deployed in Kashmir to quell a separatist
insurgency that has killed at least 45,000 people since 1989,
to be firm but humane.

He also repeated his willingness to scale down India's
troop presence in Kashmir if militant attacks fell.

India accuses Pakistan, which also claims all of Kashmir,
of arming and training the militants. Islamabad denies the
charge. The two countries have fought two of their three wars
over Kashmir.

As well as looking at giving Kashmir more autonomy, the new
committees would also look at economic development and helping
those affected by the dispute. Singh gave no details on how the
committees would work.

During Singh's visit, Srinagar was shut down by a strike
called by hardline separatists, and by tight security.

Tourists were stranded and taxi drivers complained their
earnings had dried up. The complaints prompted Singh to decide
to leave early, his aides said.

(Additional reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq)