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Indian PM is Prepared to Hold Peace Talks with Pakistan - 2003-04-19

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee says New Delhi is prepared to hold a dialogue with Pakistan, but only if Islamabad ends support for Islamic rebel groups waging a separatist insurgency in Kashmir. The Indian leader made the comments at the end of a rare two-day visit to Indian Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar. Prime Minister Vajpayee says he wants to give peace talks with Pakistan another chance. But he told reporters in Srinagar, that this can only happen, if Pakistan meets India's long-standing demand that it halt what New Delhi calls cross-border infiltration of Islamic militants into Indian territory.

Mr. Vajpayee says he has extended a hand of friendship to Islamabad, and he will wait to see how Pakistan responds. He says India is prepared to talk on all issues including Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries, and is the source of their deep hostilities.

Mr. Vajpayee's offer of talks with Pakistan came Friday, and was welcomed by Islamabad, raising hopes of breaking the stalemate between the two rivals.

The two countries last held peace talks nearly two years ago. Since then, hostilities have deepened over Indian charges that Pakistan aids and abets the separatist insurgency that has raged in Kashmir since 1989. Pakistan denies supporting infiltration of Muslim militants into Indian Kashmir, and says it only gives moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiri separatists.

Mr. Vajpayee says events in Iraq should serve as a wake-up call for the nuclear rivals. India and Pakistan came close to war last year, raising international concern about the use of nuclear weapons in a potential conflict.

Mr. Vajpayee earlier told a university audience in Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, that the troubled region stands at a turning point. He said last year's state elections underscored New Delhi's commitment to returning peace to the region. Mr. Vajpayee acknowledged that the Indian government had made mistakes in the region in the past, but said these would not be repeated. "Today, our sincere commitment to bring peace and normalcy to Jammu and Kashmir makes me admit that we have often faltered in our journey towards this goal, and sometimes forgotten that democracy is too delicate a plant to be subjected to manipulation and manhandling," Mr. Vajpayee said.

There was heavy security throughout Mr. Vajpayee's visit to Srinagar. Separatist groups had ordered a two-day strike to coincide with the visit. But they halted the strike on Saturday, saying the shutdown on the previous day demonstrated they had the peoples' support.

The two-day high level visit is being seen as an effort by New Delhi to express its support for the state's new regional government, which has vowed to fight separatism, restore peace, and improve living conditions for Kashmiris.