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Indian Officials Meet Tribal Rebel Leaders 

Separatist leaders from the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland and senior Indian officials have expressed their commitment to ending the country's oldest rebellion.

Two leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, a powerful rebel group, met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Shivraj Patil for a brief round of talks.

Officials hope the talks will pave the way for a peaceful settlement of an insurgency that has haunted India's Northeast ever since independence in 1947.

It was the first time the Naga leaders, Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, had met India's head of government on Indian soil. The two sides signed a ceasefire in 1997 and several rounds of talks have been held since then, but mostly in other countries.

The Prime minister's spokesman, Sanjaya Baru, says both sides are committed to ending a rebellion that has left more than 15,000 people dead.

"The Naga leaders said a solution cannot be found in violence and blood," he noted. "The prime minister assured the Naga leaders that he is for a mutually acceptable and honorable solution that can ensure that the Naga people have a life of dignity and self-respect."

The rebels want special status for Nagaland, a state that borders Burma. The state is home to an estimated three million members of the Naga ethnic minority.

So far, the main stumbling bloc to a solution has been the Nagas' demand for a bigger homeland, which would include Naga-inhabited areas of the neighboring states of Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. But the people of those states are vehemently opposed to the idea of joining a larger Naga state.

Naga rebel leader, Mr. Muivah says any solution must take into consideration the Naga identity.

"But if [a] solution is to be sought after these talks, it has to be on the basis of the uniqueness of the history and situation of the Nagas," he said.

The Nagas are among a host of tribes that inhabit India's hilly northeast, which is connected to the rest of the country by a narrow land corridor. They vehemently opposed joining India at the time of independence, wanting to preserve their distinct culture and ethnic identity.

During the past two decades, at least a dozen other ethnic groups in the region have engaged in violent rebellions. The government hopes that solving the Naga insurgency could give a boost to efforts to negotiate an end to those other insurgencies as well.