India makes conditional offer to hold talks with Pakistan

Sunday, April 20, 2003

SRINAGAR, India -- India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conditionally offered Saturday to negotiate with Pakistan over Kashmir and other key issues dividing the two nuclear-armed rivals.

Vajpayee's comments came at a news conference concluding a two-day visit to the state of Jammu-Kashmir, the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir.

"If Pakistan says tomorrow that it will close down the terrorist camps in Pakistan, if it says this today, I will send a top Foreign Ministry official to Islamabad tomorrow to draw up a schedule for the talks," Vajpayee said.

India has repeatedly said renewed talks depend on Pakistan showing proof that it is doing something to stop Islamic militants from crossing into Jammu-Kashmir, India's only predominantly Muslim state.

Still Vajpayee's comments and his visit to the region -- the first public address by an Indian head of state in Kashmir in 16 years -- raised hopes for peace.

"What Prime Minister Vajpayee has said, we take it seriously and we see a change in attitude ... but we will consider it in detail and react," said Abdul Ghani Bhat, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of 23 political and religious separatist groups.

But Salim Hashmi, a spokesman for the largest guerrilla group, Hezb-ul Mujahedeen said Vajpayee's offer "is a deception to gain time to crush the freedom movement in Indian-occupied Kashmir."

Pakistan has repeatedly denied supporting the militants -- and did so again on Saturday.

"We said last year that there are no cross-border infiltrations taking place from Pakistan, and we repeat today that our part of Kashmir is not being used for infiltration," Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan's information minister, told The Associated Press.

But he added that "we want to solve all problems with India through talks and negotiations...and are ready for talks."

More than 61,000 people have been killed in the strife since 1989.

In the latest violence on Saturday, Pakistani army shelling along the cease-fire line, which divides Kashmir between Pakistan and India, killed a 7-year-old girl in Gwalta, a village about 70 miles north of Srinagar, the state's summer capital, police said.

Paramilitary soldiers killed two separatist rebels in the village of Kokernag, 50 miles south of Srinagar, and one civilian died in the crossfire, police said. In nearby Poshnari, soldiers killed a suspected guerrilla.

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