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Indian Prime Minister Meets Kashmiri Separatist Leaders


India says it could cut troop levels in Kashmir, if violence declines in the insurgency-wracked region. The statement came after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held his first-ever dialogue with moderate separatist leaders from Indian Kashmir in New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held out the possibility of reducing troops in the Kashmir region after 2 1/2 hours of talks with a five-member delegation from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference late Monday. The Hurriyat is an alliance of several moderate Kashmiri political groups.

The prime minister's spokesman, Sanjaya Baru, says Mr. Singh told the Kashmiri separatist leaders that the government is waiting for an end to separatist violence and infiltration from the Pakistani side of the line of demarcation. "The prime minister said, if there is a cessation of violence, and an end to infiltration, conditions will be created for the reduction of armed forces," he said.

Tens-of-thousands of soldiers are deployed in Indian Kashmir since a violent insurgency, led by Islamic militant groups, erupted in 1989. Kashmiris widely resent the troops' presence, and Hurriyat leaders have long-demanded their withdrawal, accusing them of human rights violations.

The prime minister assured the Hurriyat leaders that his government will take steps to prevent rights violations, and review the cases of hundreds of people held in detention.

Monday's talks were the first held between Kashmiri separatist leaders and Mr. Singh since his Congress-led government came to power last year.

The dialogue with the Hurriyat is part of New Delhi's efforts at reconciliation in Kashmir, where separatist groups have been demanding either independence from India or merger with Pakistan.

Hurriyat leaders called the talks fruitful, and said they told the prime minister that they want an honorable and durable solution to the Kashmir problem.

The head of the Kashmiri delegation, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq told reporters, Kashmiris want to be part of efforts being made by India and Pakistan to solve their territorial dispute over the Himalayan region, which is claimed by both countries. "We have always maintained that Kashmir is not a bilateral issue, that it can be resolved bilaterally, we feel that unless and until the people of Kashmir are involved in the dialogue, we cannot have peace and stability in the region," he said.

The talks are an attempt to widen the peace process between India and Pakistan, and they come nine days before the Indian Prime Minister meets Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of the U.N. general assembly in New York. In June, Hurriyat leaders made a landmark visit to Pakistan for talks with the Pakistani President and other leaders.

The Indian government and the Kashmiri leaders say they will continue with the dialogue.

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