Sat, Dec 20, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Pakistan's offer raises peace hopes

MIXED REACTIONS Most people welcome Pakistan's surprise decision to drop demands for a UN-mandated plebiscite on Kashmir, but others say it's a betrayal

REUTERS , SRINAGAR, INDIA AND AFP, ISLAMABAD

Pakistan's surprise offer to drop demands for a UN-mandated plebiscite on the future of disputed Kashmir has spurred quiet hopes for peace, but also some angry charges of betrayal.

Ordinary people in the ancient city of Srinagar, the heart of Kashmir, urged New Delhi yesterday to respond positively to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's apparent concession.

"India has to reciprocate ... only then a solution is possible. Only then our sufferings, miseries and hardships will end," said Mohammad Maqbool, who owns one of Kashmir's famous houseboats on Srinagar's Dal Lake, fringed by snow-capped mountains.

India has not yet answered Musharraf's offer, in an interview with Reuters, to drop Pakistan's 50-year-old demand to implement UN resolutions calling for both sides to withdraw their troops and for Kashmiris to vote to stay with India or join Pakistan.

"Musharraf has taken a bold step and I wish India reacts accordingly and you will see peace will prevail, tourists will return," said taxi driver Gulam Rasool.

Fourteen years of Islamic revolt, which India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring, have killed at least 40,000 to 80,000 people, driven off tourists and devastated the fertile region's economy.

Pakistan denies supporting the rebels but says it gives moral backing to what it calls Kashmiris' legitimate freedom struggle.

The nuclear rivals came close to war again over Kashmir last year after a bloody attack on India's parliament that New Delhi blamed on Kashmiri separatists based in Pakistan.

"Three wars have been fought over Kashmir, but the problem still exists," said 35-year-old Irfan Majid. "President Musharraf has taken the right step but there is a big question mark over India's sincerity."

As soldiers and police stopped vehicles and ordered people out for routine searches and identity checks, Majid lifted his woollen "pheran," a Kashmiri poncho, to reveal scars across his stomach and chest.

"I was interrogated by the [Indian] army for two days -- I am not a militant," he explained. "But let us live in peace now."

But some Kashmiris, who had looked to Pakistan for help or who resent their fate being debated and decided in New Delhi and Islamabad, are unhappy.

"Who is Musharraf? We have not given him a mandate to decide our fate," said Abinah Sheikh, a doctor.

Student Mukhtar Khan said, "Pakistan is ready to sell Kashmir now. But I am sure the militants will not let it happen.

"This movement will reach to its logical end, inshallah."

One of about a dozen Muslim separatist groups fighting for Kashmir's independence or merger with Pakistan said Musharraf had no right to make his offer.

"He's [Musharraf] not dropping the call for a plebiscite," Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid said yesterday.

"He's saying that we can think of certain other things, we have some alternative proposals. He's prepared to offer some alternatives."

While it is not clear that Musharraf has committed to abandoning demands for a referendum, the offer to negotiate on the key platform of Islamabad's Kashmir policy could mark a dramatic turning point in relations between Pakistan and India.

Pakistan has demanded Kashmiris be allowed to choose between rule by Pakistan or India since 1948, a year after Pakistan was carved out of India in the partition of the subcontinent.

The demand for a plebiscite has been backed by the UN Security Council in several resolutions since 1948.

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