Violence erupts ahead of Kashmir talks

PEACE PROCESS: Twelve people were killed in their sleep and eight wounded on the eve of a round of talks between India and Pakistan over the disputed Himalayan region

AP , NEW DELHI

Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 5

An attack by suspected Islamic rebels killed a dozen people in the Indian portion of Kashmir ahead of talks today between India and Pakistan on their dispute over the Himalayan region -- one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints and a key hurdle in their revived peace process.

India accuses Pakistan of collaborating with the rebels, who want independence for Indian Kashmir or its merger with Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Pakistan denies the allegation, which is a key source of rancor between the sides.

Reports of the attack boosted tension on the eve of the talks. Suspected rebels in Kashmir's Surankot region opened fire early yesterday, killing 12 sleeping people and wounding eight -- most of them from a military-trained village security force -- police said. No one immediately claimed responsibility.

Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan have fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir as well as a brief border war in 1999, and narrowly avoided another conflict in 2002. Both claim the territory in its entirety.

The two days of talks between foreign secretaries starting today in New Delhi are the most recent peace initiatives launched with a summit in January. A week ago, the neighbors agreed to create a new nuclear hotline to reduce the risk of war and affirmed their commitment to a nuclear test ban.

The two countries haven't held substantive talks on resolving the Kashmir dispute since 1998, and this weekend's meeting was seen as a way to restart the negotiations -- without high expectations for an immediate breakthrough.

"This is an important round of talks," Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan told reporters.

India controls 46 percent of Kashmir, while Pakistan holds 35 percent. China controls the remaining 19 percent, some of which was captured from India in a 1962 war.

A dozen rebel groups have been fighting the government in India-controlled Kashmir since 1989 in a conflict that has killed more than 65,000 people, mostly civilians.

Pakistan Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar headed to India yesterday for the discussions with his Indian counterpart, Shashank, who goes by one name.

India is likely to propose a reduction in the number of troops along the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between the two neighbors, the Hindustan Times reported yesterday.

India and Pakistan have observed a ceasefire in Kashmir since November, but have jointly amassed nearly 1 million soldiers along the disputed border.

On Friday, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said in a television interview that relations between the two countries were "inclined toward improvement," but urged the inclusion of Kashmiri leaders in negotiations.

"The earlier you involve them, the sooner a solution for the Kashmir issue can be found," he said.

The Indian government has been meeting since January with a moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of Kashmiri separatist political and religious groups.

Pakistan, however, recognizes a hardline faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

India is also expected to raise the issue of Islamic insurgents allegedly crossing from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir into Indian territory.

Pakistan says it doesn't allow terrorists on its soil but acknowledges giving political and diplomatic support to what it sees as the legitimate struggle of the Kashmiri people to end Indian occupation.

The foreign secretaries are also expected to discuss the resumption of bus services between their sections of Kashmir.