After past disappointments, latest peace talks give Kashmiris some hope

Few things arouse optimism in violence-weary Kashmir after nearly 16 years of bloodshed, but residents said the latest peace talks between separatists and India's prime minister provided a glimmer of hope.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held talks Monday with five leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference _ an umbrella group of moderate Kashmiri separatists _ and promised to consider reducing troop levels in Indian-controlled Kashmir if violence by Islamic militants ceased.

Singh also agreed to review all cases of Kashmiris held in detention.

Separatists have been demanding Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with neighboring Pakistan for more than five decades.

The campaign turned violent in 1989 when hard-line militant groups began fighting security forces in the region split between India and Pakistan. The nearly 16-year insurgency has killed more than 66,000 people, most of them civilians.

Hurriyat leaders, such as Omer Farooq, have denounced the violence of the guerrilla groups, who have questioned the authority of moderate leaders.

But on the streets of Srinagar, the summer capital of India's Jammu-Kashmir state, there was optimism that the dialogue marked a new beginning.

"It is a small yet significant opening for Kashmiris, Indians and Pakistanis. I think that they should grab the moment and work toward settling the issue," said Abdul Hamid, a businessman in Srinagar.

Hamid said that he was optimistic about the peace process, but added that "past experience restrains us from jumping in joy."

He was referring to the two rounds of unproductive talks between India's previous Hindu nationalist government and Hurriyat leaders.

Another Srinagar resident, Bashir Muzaffar, said that "the logical conclusion of peace talks should be an end to violence. Let's see if that happens. Otherwise, these parleys have little meaning for us."

Attacks and bombings are routine in Indian Kashmir, and the insurgency appears to have worn out many in the region.

Muzaffar thinks that rebel groups should be involved in the talks because "ultimately combatants on both sides have a pivotal role in ending violence."

The leader of the pro-India National Conference party, Ali Mohammad Sagar, agrees. He suggested the "Indian government should invite rebel groups, like the Hezb-ul-Mujahedeen, in the next round."

But the rebel groups _ who have continued their fighting _ opposed any dialogue with India that does not include a discussion of self-determination for Kashmir, an unlikely prospect.

Prominent separatist leader, Nayeem Khan, who heads the Jammu-Kashmir National Front, told The Associated Press that holding talks with only one faction of the separatist bloc would affect the credibility of the peace process, AP reported.

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