Slaughter in Kashmir 'will not halt peace effort'

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A wave of violence by Islamic militants aimed at Kashmir's Hindu minority has left 35 dead, days before a planned meeting between the divided region's political separatists and India's Prime Minister.

In one village, militants disguised as soldiers coaxed wary residents from their homes and then shot dead 22 of them - the single bloodiest attack by Islamic rebels in Kashmir since a 2003 ceasefire between India and Pakistan.

Separately, 13 shepherds were abducted over the weekend in Kashmir's Udhampur district. Four were found dead on Sunday and the bodies of the nine others were discovered on Monday afternoon, a senior police officer said.

Reacting to the village attack, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested that the killings would not hamper efforts to find peace in the Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan, saying: "People of Kashmir have rejected and rebuffed terrorists repeatedly."

India has accused Pakistan of backing the militants, even as the two rivals have talked peace. Singh, however, stopped short of blaming Islamabad.

A spokeswoman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, Tasnim Aslam, said the killings were "an act of terrorism and we condemn it".

Witnesses said more than half a dozen assailants, some in army uniforms, slipped into the village of Thava after dark on Sunday and, using local guides, told people they had come to meet residents.

"When we assembled outside the home of the village head ... they showered bullets on us," said Gyan Chand, one of five people wounded in the attack.

Survivors rushed to alert a nearby army camp, but the assailants fled before security forces arrived, said Sheesh Pal Vaid, a police inspector-general.

For centuries, Kashmir's Hindus - who are known as Pandits - lived peacefully alongside the region's Muslim majority.

But the Pandits have been targeted relentlessly by Islamic insurgents who have been fighting since 1989 to wrest Kashmir from largely Hindu India. Most have fled, many to squalid refugee camps. An estimated 2,000 Pandits have been killed in the insurgency, which has claimed nearly 67,000 lives.

The remaining 25,000 Pandits - a tenth of the pre-insurgency population - are subject to frequent attacks, and many live in fear of the militants.

However, the largest Islamic militant group, Hezb-ul-Mujahedeen, claimed that Indian intelligence agents carried out the killings as an "attempt to defame" the insurgents.