Nearly 40,000 of India's half million troops in disputed Kashmir will be withdrawn to boost peace talks with rival Pakistan, a news report said yesterday.
The report came four days after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered a reduction of troops in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir starting this winter and ending in March, though he did not disclose how many forces would be cut.
Kashmir is a flashpoint for hostilities between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. They have fought two wars over the region, which is divided between them, but claimed by both in its entirety. A reduction in troop numbers would be a significant step toward reducing tension.
The proposed troop cutback appeared to be a response to Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf's call last month for flexibility over the Kashmir dispute, and his proposal to demilitarize the territory.
India's army is likely to soon withdraw a mountain division of 10,000 soldiers and send them back to the eastern region to guard India's border with China, The Pioneer newspaper reported.
Another mountain division of 10,000 soldiers would be brought down from the Himalayan heights, but kept in the state for the time being, the newspaper quoted unidentified sources as saying.
Nearly 20,000 of 50,000 soldiers of a counterinsurgency force, the Rashtriya Rifles, in Kashmir also would return to their parent army units, the daily said. Their presence would be reduced in small and remote towns and villages, following complaints of human rights violations.
It said the proposals by the security forces were presented to India's Cabinet Committee on Security on Thursday. The report did not cite its sources.
Colonel S. Sakhuja, the Indian army spokesman, declined to comment on the newspaper report.
Pakistan said it would only comment after receiving official notification from India that it will pull out some troops from Kashmir.
"Officially we have got no intimation so far," Major General Shaukat Sultan, the spokesman, said from Rawalpindi, a city near the capital Islamabad where the Pakistan army is headquartered.
The withdrawal would be the first since an insurgency by Islamic militants broke out in 1989. The guerrillas have been fighting for the independence of India's portion of Kashmir, or its merger with Pakistan.
Singh's announcement Thursday came ahead of his visit to the Indian portion of Kashmir this week.
The prime minister said a decline in separatist violence had prompted the proposed withdrawal. But he warned he would redeploy soldiers if rebel attacks increased.
Pakistan's army estimates there are about 700,000 Indian security forces in the region, but Indian officials say the number is fewer than 500,000.
India and Pakistan have improved relations over the past year, declaring a ceasefire on the heavily militarized Line of Control that cuts through Kashmir. They have also restored diplomatic ties and travel links, and launched a new round of peace talks.