Kashmiri separatists in Indian peace talks

Moves to end one of the world's bloodiest and destabilising conflicts took a significant turn with an unprecedented meeting yesterday between the Indian government and Kashmiri separatists.

Amid daily bloodshed in the disputed Himalayan region - a place which has triggered two wars between India and Pakistan since Partition in 1947, and a 14-year insurgency claiming tens of thousands of lives - both sides formally agreed that all violence should cease.

The decision came in a joint statement issued after the meeting between the moderate wing of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of separatist political parties in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and Lal Krishna Advani, India's Deputy Prime Minister.

They also agreed for a further meeting today to be attended by India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee - another first - and for more talks in March.

The statement described the meeting in Delhi as "the first significant step on the dialogue process initiated by the government of India", and said that a "step by step approach would lead to resolution of all outstanding issues relating to Jammu and Kashmir".

Although these amount only to broad-brush expressions of good intention, the statement did include a concrete commitment from Mr Advani to hold a rapid review of the cases of detainees in Kashmir, one of the leading concerns of human rights activists.

It also came as a surprise to analysts. Until recently, the prospect of a meeting between separatists from the Muslim-majority Kashmir and any senior Indian politician - let alone Mr Advani, the embodiment of strident Hindu nationalism - seemed remote. The 90-minute meeting indirectly adds momentum to the steady thaw between the two countries.

Earlier this month, the countries agreed to hold talks on their differences after a private meeting between Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf and Mr Vajpayee during a regional summit in Islamabad. Air and land routes have been restored, a ceasefire has been established, and a general air of cautious optimism has set in.

Kashmir is by far the biggest bone of contention, and a multitude of obstacles lie along the path to a solution, not least the strong popular conviction on both sides - reinforced by massive loss of life - that the place belongs to them. Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatists accuse India's security forces of sweeping human rights violations; India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring militant groups.

The separatists' decision to attend yesterday's talks with Mr Advani has, as India's strategists doubtless intended, split the Hurriyat's moderates from its hardliners, who opposed the meeting. One hardliner, Syed Ali Shah, said yesterday that they were not against negotiations but believed that they should not be held until India released Kashmiri prisoners and withdrew its troops from the region.

In an election year, moves to make peace are likely to be vote-winning for Mr Vajpayee's ruling coalition, led by his Bharatiya Janata Party, especially if they look as though India has not retreated from its basic position, which is that Kashmir is part of its territory.

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