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Vajpayee Meets with Kashmir Separatist Leaders


Separatist leaders from the disputed region of Kashmir are expected to meet with India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee later Friday. The meeting comes after historic first talks between the separatists and a senior Indian official, which have raised hopes that the two sides can bring an end to 14 years of bloodshed.

A leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a grouping of Kashmir separatist groups, describes the upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a courtesy call.

However, Abdul Ghani Bhat says he hopes the prime minister wants to exchange more than pleasantries.

"Hopefully if he chooses to talk… we'll be talking, and talking Kashmir," he said.

Mr. Bhat is one of five Kashmiri separatists who held landmark talks Thursday with Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani. A joint statement issued after the talks denounced violence, and called for a step-by-step solution to the dispute.

Islamic militants launched an insurgency in Kashmir in 1989. Some want independence for India's only Muslim majority state, while others want to merge the territory with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

The Kashmiri insurgents have been a headache for India, but the divided region is also the source of friction between India and its neighbor, Pakistan. The two countries have fought two wars over Kashmir and continue to deploy troops along the Line of Control, or LOC, the frontline in the troubled region.

Last year, India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire along the LOC, as part of a series of measures taken by the two sides to ease tensions.

Mr. Bhat says the improved atmosphere may pave the way for a second cease-fire, in the heart of the Kashmir Valley.

"The Indians and Pakistanis declared a ceasefire along the L.O.C. We would want that the cease-fire is extended up to the valley," said Mr. Bhat.

Officials in New Delhi have not yet commented on such a possibility, but the government has agreed to hold further discussions with the Hurriyat Conference in March.

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