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Indian Official Meets Kashmiri Separatists in New Delhi - 2004-01-22

India's Deputy Prime Minister and Kashmiri separatist leaders have agreed to a take a step by step approach toward ending years of bloodshed in the disputed region. The two sides released a joint statement after holding their first direct talks since the insurgency began in Kashmir 14 years ago.

Kashmiri separatist leaders say the two-and-a-half hours of talks are a significant step towards achieving peace in Kashmir. In a joint statement, the separatists and India's Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani called for an end to violence, and agreed to hold further discussions in March.

Separatist leaders also requested a meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which is expected to take place Friday.

The meeting was the first between separatist leaders and a top Indian official since 1989, when Islamic militants launched an insurgency in the two-thirds of Kashmir that falls under India's control.

The conflict is also a key source of tensions between India and its nuclear rival, Pakistan. The two nations agreed to hold their own peace negotiations last month, after a meeting between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Deputy Prime Minister Advani credited the success of the talks, in part, to the strides made towards peace with Pakistan.

"All these have contributed to a new atmosphere," he said. "A new atmosphere in which there is a determination all around to see that violence comes to an end."

The five separatist leaders are moderate members of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a grouping of several separatist organizations. Some want India's only Muslim-majority state to be independent. Others want it to join predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

The government also agreed to review the status of all political prisoners connected to the Kashmir conflict.

Before the talks began, Kashmiri leaders tried to downplay expectations, saying that they merely hoped the meeting would mark the start of a process towards peace.