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Pakistan Ready for Peace Talks with India, says Official - 2003-04-21

Pakistan said Monday it is ready to hold peace talks with India at any level and at any time, without conditions.

The statement comes in response to the Indian prime minister's assertion that New Delhi is prepared to hold a dialogue with Pakistan, but only if Islamabad ends support for Islamic rebel groups waging a separatist insurgency in Kashmir.

Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said the government welcomes the Indian offer, and hopes that a dialogue between the two countries starts as soon as possible.

"Just a week ago, or so, we were having extremely hostile statements coming from across the border. This is a positive statement. I think one should hope that, soon, more positive steps will be made, or will be suggested, so that we can move forward. We should not lose hope," Mr. Khan said.

A few weeks ago, some Indian leaders were saying that Pakistan could be considered a target for a pre-emptive strike because of militants who crossed the border to fight in Indian-held Kashmir.

In his offer for talks, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee said Pakistan must first end what he called "cross-border terrorism" in Indian Kashmir.

The Kashmir population is predominately Muslim. Kashmir is divided between Indian and Pakistani control. Rebels in Indian Kashmir have been fighting for years for either independence or unification with Pakistan. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry's Mr. Khan rejects India's allegations that Islamabad is behind the infiltrations. He said a dialogue with India can only succeed when there are no conditions.

"We have always maintained that nothing of the sort is happening. This is wrong, and in order to prove our bona fides, that is where we had invited the neutral observers, and we had invited the United Nations observers," he said.

Pakistan has long maintained that it provides only moral, diplomatic, and political support to what it calls a freedom struggle in Kashmir. It also says that if India wants, Islamabad would agree to have neutral military observers or U.N. observers check whether any infiltration is taking place. India is opposed to that proposal.

The Kashmir dispute has caused two wars between the two South Asian nations. In recent years, tensions have again risen.