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Indian Prime Minister Calls for Talks with Pakistan - 2003-04-18


Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has called for talks with Pakistan. He also held out the prospect of peace and development to the people of Indian Kashmir, in a landmark visit to the insurgency-wracked region. Kashmiri separatist groups called for a shut down during the prime minister's visit.

Prime Minister Vajpayee told a public rally in Indian Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar, that India wants good relations with Pakistan. But he says previous peace overtures by New Delhi have not been reciprocated by Islamabad.

Mr. Vajpayee told Kashmiris, India is extending the hand of friendship to Pakistan, but hands should be extended from both sides. He says the two countries should resolve issues through talks.

The prime minister's fresh offer of peace comes as tensions deepen between India and Pakistan, due to a recent surge in militant violence in Kashmir, a region divided between India and Pakistan.

Mr. Vajpayee addressed Kashmiris amid extremely tight security. Thousands of soldiers and paramilitary troops surrounded the stadium where he addressed a large crowd. He is the first Indian prime minister to address a public rally in Srinagar in 15 years.

The city is the center of a Muslim separatist insurgency that erupted in 1989, and turned Kashmir into a virtual war zone.

Mr. Vajpayee told Kashmiris that his government is open to dialogue to bring peace to the region, because nothing could be resolved through violence.

Mr. Vajpayee says New Delhi is willing to address the grievances of Kashmiris, promising to provide more jobs and assistance. He vows prosperity will return to the region, where the economy has been shattered by insurgency.

Mr. Vajpayee's rare visit is being seen as an attempt to reach out to the people of Kashmir, who have often complained of alienation and neglect by the federal government.

A prominent leader of the party that governs the state, Mehbooba Mufti, says the visit may help understanding between ordinary Kashmiris and Indian leaders.

"Our intention was to bridge the communication gap between the people of the valley and the prime minister of India, and let him, for himself, look at the expectation of the people."

Most of Srinagar remained deserted during Mr. Vajpayee's visit. Shops and businesses in the city shut down, and transport stayed off the roads in response to a strike called by Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Party Huriyat Conference, and Kashmir's largest rebel group, the Hizbul Mujahideen.

The Huriyat is calling for three-way talks among the governments of Indian and Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatists. Kashmir has been the flashpoint of hostility between the two countries for more than half a century.

Washington says Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage might visit the South Asian rivals to ease growing tensions between them.