U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has urged India to release political prisoners in Indian Kashmir, ahead of state elections due to be held later this year. Mr. Powell also urged India to take more steps to ease tensions with Pakistan over the disputed region.
Speaking with reporters in New Delhi before continuing on to Islamabad, Mr. Powell said free and fair elections in Indian Kashmir can be the first step in a process that could bring peace to the region, where a Muslim separatist insurgency has raged for over a decade. He said elections can help initiate a healthy political process. "We look forward to concrete steps by India to foster Kashmiri confidence in the election process. Permitting independent observers and freeing political prisoners would be helpful," he said.
New Delhi has detained several Kashmiri politicians in recent months. In the past, Kashmiri political groups have also accused India of rigging elections to favor pro-Indian Kashmiri leaders.
However, Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha rejected calls for international observers to monitor the Kashmir election, saying they would be free and fair. The polls are expected to be to held in October.
Secretary Powell said regional tensions have eased in the last month. But he says much more needs to be done to achieve permanent regional stability. "Both armies remain mobilized. The situation remains tense. We look to India to take further de-escalatory actions, as Pakistan makes good on its pledges to permanently cease support for infiltration," he said.
Mr. Powell said infiltration of Muslim militants into Indian Kashmir is continuing, and every effort must be made to put an end to this to enable both sides to gain confidence.
Indian Foreign Minister Sinha earlier rejected Mr. Powell's calls to enter into a dialogue with Pakistan, saying conditions were not right. New Delhi accuses Pakistan of going back on pledges to end infiltration of Muslim militants into Indian Kashmir. Islamabad says incursions have stopped.
Mr. Powell continues his diplomatic mission to end decades of hostility between India and Pakistan in meetings with Pakistani leaders.
He is the latest in a series of high-level Western envoys who have visited the region in recent months, and helped to pull the two countries back from the brink of war. The confrontation between India and Pakistan began in December following an attack on the Indian parliament by suspected Islamic militants. The two countries still have an estimated one million troops on their border.