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4 Killed in Kashmir Standoff - 2003-08-28

In Indian Kashmir, at least four people have been killed in a standoff between security forces and suspected Islamic militants. The violence drew a warning from India's deputy prime minister that such attacks could affect a fragile peace process with Pakistan.

The overnight clash began after two suspected Islamic militants rushed into a hotel in downtown Srinagar, and took several people hostage. The militants took refuge in the hotel on Wednesday after lobbing grenades at the main telegraph exchange.

Among those killed were a former state legislator, Javed Shah, and his bodyguard.

The hotel is just a few kilometers away from where Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and top administrators of the Indian states were holding a two-day meeting.

Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani told reporters that Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant Islamic group, had claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack. Earlier, a little known group called Al Mansoorian had called news agencies in Kashmir to claim responsibility.

The Indian government has said it suspects Lashkar-e-Taiba, along with an India-based student Islamic group, of involvement in two bomb attacks that killed more than 50 people earlier this week in Bombay.

Mr. Advani did not directly accuse Pakistan of involvement in the two attacks, but he did say that such actions would hurt the peace process between the two South Asian neighbors.

The countries have renewed diplomatic ties and direct bus links since the peace process began in April this year, but there has been no move yet to start talks to resolve their differences.

The violence in Kashmir occurred despite massive security arrangements made for the national government's interstate council meeting, which concluded Thursday. Besides Prime Minister Vajpayee, senior cabinet officials and chief ministers of the Indian states attended the Srinagar meeting.

It is the first time the meeting was held outside the capital, New Delhi. The purpose was to demonstrate that normalcy is returning to strife-torn Kashmir, which has been wracked by a 14-year Muslim separatist insurgency.

In Kashmir, Mr. Vajpayee renewed a peace offer to Kashmiri separatists, saying his government is willing to promote a dialogue with them if they reject violence.

More than a dozen Islamic guerilla groups have been fighting since 1989 to free Kashmir from Indian control, and more than 35,000 people have been killed in violence related to the insurgency.