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India's PM Promises Free, Fair Election in Kashmir, Criticizes Pakistan - 2002-08-15

India marked its 55th Independence Day Thursday with criticism of Pakistan's stand on terrorism and promises of a free and fair election in Jammu and Kashmir state. In a traditional address to the nation, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee accused Pakistan of what he called its continued sponsorship of terrorism in India. The Independence Day celebrations were held amid tight security.

Speaking from the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, Mr. Vajpayee accused Pakistan of double standards in fighting terrorism. He said although Islamabad has joined the international battle against terrorism, it continues to infiltrate Muslim militants in the northern Kashmir state to take control of the region.

According to Mr. Vajpayee, South Asia needs to look ahead toward peace to defeat what he called the region's real enemy - poverty. He said India is prepared to hold talks with Pakistan, and take other steps to deescalate tensions, if the atmosphere is conducive.

For more than eight months, both countries have been locked in a tense military standoff that is rooted in their dispute over Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan of supporting attacks by Muslim insurgents in the region. Islamabad denies the charge.

In his address, Mr. Vajpayee also dismissed Pakistan's recent criticism of upcoming elections in Kashmir, saying polls in the insurgency-wracked region will be free and transparent.

Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has called the planned elections a "farce". Mr. Vajpayee said those who called them "farcical" should look at their own affairs at home.

The Indian prime minister used the Independence Day address to call on Kashmiris to seize the opportunity of improving their future by turning out to vote in state elections that start in mid-September. The last state election in Kashmir was marred by a low voter turnout, and allegations of widespread rigging to favor pro-India candidates.

The Independence Day observances were held amid some of the tightest security seen in recent years. Anti-aircraft guns were deployed around the Red Fort, and Mr. Vajpayee spoke from behind a large, bulletproof screen.

Hundreds of thousands of security personnel were on high alert in Kashmir, where Islamic separatist groups, and the main political separatist alliance called for a boycott of the traditional celebrations. Security was also tight in the troubled northeast, where India is battling insurgencies by several militant groups.