Thu, Oct 23, 2003 - Page 5 News List

India authorizes talks with Kashmiri separatist leaders

AP , NEW DELHI

India's Cabinet yesterday authorized the deputy prime minister to hold discussions with Kashmiri separatists, Indian television stations reported, marking what would be the first high-level contact between the secessionist leaders and the government.

The decision -- which could mark a breakthrough in the Indian government's attempts to have a dialogue with the separatists -- was made at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security by Home Secretary N. Gopalaswamy, Star News channel reported.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a grouping of religious and political parties in Kashmir, has repeatedly rejected talks with the federal government's previous negotiators, such as retired bureaucrats. The Conference has said it would speak only with an official with high enough rank to ensure any agreement is carried out.

No date was set for the proposed talks between Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and Moulvi Abbas Ansari, the Hurriyat chairman, local TV stations reported, quoting Gopalaswamy.

For years, the government rejected any talks with Hurriyat, saying they had no way of knowing whether they were the true representatives of the will of the Kashmir people. The separatists have for years boycotted elections and refuse to accept India's sovereignty over the part of Kashmir under New Delhi's control.

In the past few weeks, however, Hurriyat has split and its influence has weakened, after deep divisions between pro-Pakistan and pro-independence factions came to a head.

More than 63,000 people have died since 1989, when about a dozen Islamic militant groups, based in Indian Kashmir and across the frontier in Pakistani territory, began an insurgency to wrest the province from Indian control.

India accuses Pakistan of funding, arming and training the militants, but Pakistan says it only supports their goal, and says most Kashmiris want to join Pakistan.

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