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Indian Prime Minister Repeats Peace Offer in Independence Day Speech - 2003-08-15

India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has repeated his government's offer of peace to neighboring Pakistan. In a speech marking his country's 56th independence anniversary, the Indian leader said the two nations should resolve their differences through dialogue and join forces to fight poverty.

Amid tight security and under a heavy monsoon downpour, Prime Minister Vajpayee addressed the nation from the ramparts of the 17th Century Red Fort in the old quarter of the capital.

Mr. Vajpayee called on Pakistan to work with India to find peace.

The Prime Minister says the road to peace may be full of obstacles, but if the two countries work together, those hurdles can be overcome.

He said some progress had been made, but he remarked that terrorist incidents are still continuing. That was a clear reference to India's long-standing accusation that Pakistan supports Islamic separatist rebels in the disputed area of Kashmir.

Pakistan, whose prime minister also called for peace between the two nations in a speech Thursday, denies it supports rebel violence in Kashmir. However, Pakistan says it does offer moral and diplomatic support for the majority Muslim region's right to self-determination.

India controls some two-thirds of the Himalayan region while Pakistan holds the rest. The two nations have fought two wars over Kashmir, and the area continues to be the main point of dispute between them. At least 35,000 people have been killed since a Muslim insurgency broke out in the region in 1989.

Prime Minister Vajpayee said India and Pakistan had wasted too much time fighting each other.

He says they should instead join forces to fight poverty, unemployment and backwardness.

Security for the independence day events has been extremely tight, with tens of thousands of soldiers and police deployed throughout the country to guard against possible terrorist attacks. In the capital, roadblocks were set up and sharpshooters were stationed on rooftops around the Red Fort. Air space over the city was closed for several hours Friday morning.

Violence did mar the run up to Friday's celebrations. At least 34 people were killed in acts of violence in northeastern India. Early Thursday, six people were killed when a remote-controlled bomb blew up a passenger bus in the state of Manipur. Later in the day, suspected tribal militants attacked two villages in Tripura State.

Various militant tribal groups in the northeast have been fighting either for independence or regional autonomy. They generally accuse the government of exploiting the area's mineral wealth while doing nothing for its economic development.

India and Pakistan gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Pakistan celebrates its independence day on August 14, while India marks the occasion on the 15.