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Kashmir Separatists to Meet with Indian Government on Future of Region - 2003-11-21

Separatist leaders in Indian Kashmir have agreed to negotiate with the Indian government about the future of the region, wracked by a 14-year revolt. This would be the first high-level contact between Kashmir's separatist leaders and the Indian government since the insurgency erupted. Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Party Huriyat Conference, announced its decision to join talks with the Indian government after Friday prayers at the main mosque in Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar.

Kashmir's main Muslim cleric and a prominent Huriyat leader, Umer Farooq, told thousands of worshippers that, if the Indian government extends a formal invitation, the alliance will discuss ways to return to peace.

For 14 years, Muslims have been fighting a bloody insurgency against Indian rule that has killed tens of thousands of people. Kashmir is India's only predominately Muslim province.

Last month, Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani offered to meet Kashmiri separatist leaders, acceding to their long-standing demand for direct talks with a senior Indian government official.

In the past, leaders of the Huriyat Conference have refused to meet lower-level officials from New Delhi, saying they did not have the authority to carry forward "meaningful negotiations."

India's junior Home Minister I.D. Swami welcomed the decision, saying India is anxious to restore peace to the region.

"People are eager, yearning for peace and normalcy," he said. "Things are developing in that direction. People want it [peace]. We want to help them."

The Kashmiri groups that will meet with the Indian government represent moderate factions. The All Party Huriyat Conference split recently between hard-line groups that favor Kashmir's merger with Pakistan and those that support independence.

The talks are expected to take place next month. The Indian government says the negotiations will be about more autonomy for the region, but Kashmiri leaders are insisting on what they call "unconditional talks."

Despite the differences, the proposed dialogue is seen as a significant step forward in New Delhi's efforts to resolve the 14-year rebellion in Kashmir.