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Kashmir Separatists Threaten to Withdraw from Peace Talks - 2004-02-25

In India, Kashmiri separatists are threatening to pull out of peace talks with the federal government, which began last month. The initiative had been hailed as a significant step forward in restoring peace to the troubled region, where a Muslim separatist insurgency has raged for 14 years.

The single round of talks between Kashmiri separatists of the All Parties Huriyat Conference and India's Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani concluded a month ago amid high hope. It was to be followed by another meeting in March.

But the head of the Huriyat Conference, Maulana Abbas Ansari, says his group will not resume talks if the federal government does not end human rights violations in the state and "rein in the troops" by the end of the month.

Kashmiri separatist leaders say Mr. Advani had promised to end alleged harassment of Kashmiris by Indian troops, and to review complaints about deaths of civilians in custody.

But Mr. Ansari said atrocities against innocent civilians in Kashmir are continuing in the name of fighting Islamic militants. He said his group has not seen any change in the situation on the ground. If this situation continues, he said, "our hands are being tied."

The threat to pull out of the talks follows several recent incidents in which civilians have died, including one in which five civilians were allegedly used as human shields by the Indian army in a gunfight with militants. Indian authorities have denied the charge.

Human rights groups and the Huriyat Conference accuse Indian security forces in Kashmir of abuses such as arbitrary arrests and torture. The Indian government denies there is systematic abuse, and says any instances of rights violations are punished.

Tens of thousands of security forces are deployed in Kashmir to fight Islamic militant groups battling since 1989 to end Indian rule of the region.

The dialogue between the government and the Huriyat leaders is the first attempt at negotiations since the insurgency erupted. The leaders who held talks with the federal government represent a moderate faction of the Huriyat Conference, which is made up of several separatist organizations. Some hard-line groups have refused to participate in the talks. The dialogue between Indian and Kashmiri separatists was expected to give momentum to peace talks between India and Pakistan, which began earlier this month. Kashmir is divided between the rivals and is a key source of tensions between them, because both claim the Muslim-majority region in its entirety.