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India's Peace Initiatives Draw Mixed Reaction in Kashmir - 2003-04-21

An Indian government envoy has arrived in Kashmir to explore the possibility of holding peace talks in the insurgency-wracked region.

N.N. Vohra arrived in Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, for a week-long visit, saying "doors for talks are fully open to anyone wanting peace." He is New Delhi's envoy for dialogue with Kashmiri political groups.

Mr. Vohra first plans to meet state lawmakers and other mainstream politicians. He is later expected to reach out to separatist groups in Kashmir.

His trip follows a rare visit by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to the region last week. Mr. Vajpayee made repeated peace overtures to Pakistan and to Kashmiris during the visit.

Mr. Vajpayee stressed the need for a dialogue, saying violence cannot end a separatist insurgency that erupted 14 years ago in India's only Muslim-majority province.

But leaders of Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Party Huriyat Conference, say the Indian government has not gone far enough in addressing their concerns, and they are unlikely to meet the federal government's representative. The Huriyat is an alliance of more than 20 separatist groups.

The group says talks to end the rebellion should be held only with the rebels and Pakistan, and not the state government. A top separatist leader, Shabir Shah, says a dialogue will only be fruitful, if senior Indian leaders, such as the prime minister, meet Kashmiri separatists to set policy. He says talks with lower level functionaries can follow.

The largest Islamic rebel group in Kashmir, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, has also rejected Mr. Vajpayee's peace offer. A spokesman for the rebel group, Salim Hashmi, called it a "deception to gain time to crush the freedom movement in Indian Kashmir."

But Kashmir's chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, described Mr. Vajpayee's visit to the region as historic, saying he is the first Indian prime minister to try bridging the gulf between New Delhi and Kashmir. The chief minister is asking militants and separatist groups to shun violence and join the dialogue process.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan. The violent insurgency in the region is led by nearly a dozen Muslim militant groups, and has claimed more than 35,000 lives.