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Kashmiri Separatists from India Travel to Pakistan

A group of moderate Muslim separatists from Indian Kashmir are making an unprecedented visit to the Pakistani-controlled part of the divided region. The visit comes as the peace process between India and Pakistan aimed at solving their long-standing dispute over Kashmir gathers momentum.

The Muslim separatists from Indian Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, will head to Muzaffarabad in Pakistani Kashmir on Thursday, using the recently launched bus service between the two areas.

Most of the group belongs to the moderate faction of the All Parties Huriyat Conference, an alliance of political parties seeking Kashmir's independence from India or integration with Pakistan.

Their visit is in response to an invitation from Pakistan. Islamabad says Kashmiri separatists must be involved in the search for a solution to the dispute over the Himalayan region, which is claimed by both countries.

Abdul Ghani Bhat, a senior leader of the Huriyat conference hopes the trip will contribute to the peace process between India and Pakistan that began 18 months ago.

"Pakistanis and Indians are talking in terms of resolving the dispute, or producing ideas or making suggestions," he said. "We have also prepared an outline with regard to the future dispensation to the Jammu and Kashmir. We would like to share our ideas with the leadership in Islamabad and in Delhi."

The separatists say they will meet leaders of Pakistani Kashmir and government officials in Islamabad. They also plan to meet rebel groups who have been conducting an armed separatist insurgency in Indian Kashmir for the last 15 years - but it is not clear if the militants will agree to meet the moderate leaders.

In the past, India has denied permission to Kashmiri separatists to travel to Pakistan, insisting that the dispute only involves the two governments.

Subhash Kashyap a political analyst with New Delhi's Center for Policy Research says India's decision to allow the visit is a step in the right direction.

"Anyone who wants to have a share in peace making should be welcome," he said.

But political analysts say the visit has lost significance because a hard-line faction of the Huriyat has refused to join the group headed to Pakistan. It accuses Islamabad of making concessions to India and deviating from its stand that all of Kashmir is a part of Pakistan.

But the visit of the moderate Kashmiri separatist leaders is being seen as a sign that relations between the two countries have improved considerably.

Also trying to advance the peace process is India's opposition leader, Lal Krishna Advani. He is currently visiting Pakistan, and said in Islamabad his visit will help improve ties.

"I am confident that my visit to Pakistan this time, even though I am not on the government, would reinforce these peace initiatives and the movement towards normalcy," he said.

Kashmir is at the center of more than half a century of enmity between India and Pakistan and has triggered two of their three wars. But both countries now say "peace is irreversible", although no breakthroughs have been made on the dispute.