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Separatists in Kashmir Endorse Talks with Non-Government Indian Group

Separatist political leaders in Indian-administered Kashmir have endorsed talks with a non-governmental committee led by a former senior Indian government official. The separatists say that although they support discussions about a political settlement for Kashmir, they will not participate in next month's legislative elections in the state.

The 23-member All Parties Huriyat Conference says it will hold talks with former Indian Law Minister Ram Jethmalani, who heads the non-governmental Kashmir Committee, which is made up of prominent Indian academics and former senior officials. The talks will center on ways to diffuse tensions in volatile Kashmir.

The decision by the executive committee of the Huriyat Conference was made late Monday. Last year, Huriyat leaders rejected an Indian Government invitation to hold talks, unless Pakistan was included in discussions on how to achieve a political settlement in Kashmir. India firmly rejects including Pakistan in any such discussions. Two-thirds of Kashmiri territory is controlled by India and one-third by Pakistan.

At their meeting, Huriyat leaders reiterated their refusal to participate in legislative elections, scheduled to begin next month in India's Jammu and Kashmir State. Kashmir's separatists have accused Indian authorities of rigging past elections to favor pro-Indian candidates.

Separatist militants have vowed to disrupt the polls through violence. Indian officials say they will ensure polling takes place peacefully.

India accuses Pakistan of supporting the militants, a charge Pakistan vigorously denies. There are widespread fears militant attacks during the election period could raise tensions again between South Asia's two nuclear neighbors.

On a visit to both countries last month, American Secretary of State Colin Powell called on India to release three senior Huriyat leaders in custody and allow independent observers to monitor the Kashmir elections. The polling will be held on four dates in September and October. Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha has said the elections will be free and fair. He has rejected calls for international observers to be present.

Although he called on India to ease tensions in Kashmir, Secretary Powell also said the infiltration of militants into Indian Kashmir from Pakistan must be stopped if both sides are to gain the necessary confidence to improve relations.