Kashmiris, Pakistan Cautiously Welcome Indian Offer
7 November 2004
Srinagar: Kashmiri separatists gave a cautious welcome on Sunday to India's offer to allow them to visit Pakistan and said it could help to restart a stalled dialogue process. Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil, visiting India's only Muslim-majority state, said on Saturday he was ready for unconditional talks with separatist leaders, and had no objection if they wanted to visit Pakistan before talks were held. Most Kashmiri separatists have either not been given passports or have had them impounded by Indian authorities, but Patil said they could apply for travel documents. 'It is definitely a welcome step,' said Moulana Abbas Ansari, a senior leader of the moderate wing of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference. 'But if they are sincere, they should first issue our passports.' Pakistan, which disputes Indian rule over Kashmir, also welcomed the offer. 'This is a step in the right direction,' foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan told Reuters in Islamabad. 'It will enhance interaction between the Kashmiris and should ultimately facilitate their dialogue with Pakistan and India.' Moderate separatist leaders held two rounds of talks with the Indian government this year, for the first time since an insurgency broke out in Kashmir in 1989. But talks stalled after Patil's Congress-led government took power in May. Patil's ministry had initially insisted any talks should take place 'within' the Indian constitution, which says Kashmir is an integral part of India. But on Saturday the minister insisted there was 'no condition from our side'. Moderate separatists had been under pressure not to talk to New Delhi from hardline groups, who broke away from the Hurriyat alliance last year. Before a third round of talks, separatists have demanded the right to visit Pakistan and talk to Kashmiris on the other side of the Line of Control dividing the troubled Himalayan region. Thousands of people have died since Muslim separatist rebels launched a bloody insurgency in Kashmir in 1989. Violence has waned but not stopped since India and Pakistan launched a peace process last year. Fourteen were killed in a string of attacks as Patil began his three- day visit to the region on Saturday. On Sunday, Indian police said an army officer and two members of a Pakistan-based militant group were killed in a fierce gunbattle in the western Poonch district. In another incident they said a member of Kashmir's ruling People's Democratic Party was killed by suspected militants. India accuses Pakistan of arming, training and sending separatists into Kashmir. Islamabad calls the Kashmir rebellion an indigenous freedom struggle and accuses the Indian army of major human rights abuses in the region.