Kashmir separatists boycott talks with Indian prime minister - 24 May, 2006 - News

Shops, businesses and schools closed in Kashmir on Wednesday after separatist groups issued a strike call to protest a visit by India's prime minister, who was holding talks with politicians and reviewing efforts to revive development in the battle-scarred Himalayan expanse. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began his visit on a conciliatory note, asking security forces to be "firm but humane ... (providing) maximum security with minimum disruption of normal life" a response to allegations of human rights abuses by the military and police. In a region with wide disaffection toward Indian rule, his comments were apparently aimed at easing the concerns of separatist politicians who have boycotted Singh's talks, saying there has been little progress on the ground despite government promises.

Singh chaired a meeting of military commanders, police and government officials to review security in the region before opening the conference. "It is possible and desirable that you should be firm but humane, effective but unobtrusive," Singh told them, according to his spokesman Sanjaya Baru. Singh also met government officials to review progress of a special program for the reconstruction of the region.

He had hoped to bring pro-India Kashmiris and separatist Islamic leaders to the same negotiating table, but most separatist groups refused. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference Kashmir 's main separatist alliance said the Hurriyat leaders, however, would be happy to meet separately with Singh. But Baru told reporters the prime minister would not meet with Hurriyat leaders separately.

Security forces have been deployed at unprecedented levels for the past two days in the city, already guarded by thousands of soldiers, some of the half-million troops deployed across India 's Jammu-Kashmir state. Residents were frisked, cars stopped and patrols intensified. Roads leading to the city's airport and the lakeside venue of the meeting were sealed off. Despite the tight security, attacks have continued. Suspected militants hurled a grenade at security post Wednesday, injuring two soldiers and three civilians.

On Tuesday evening, a car-bomb attack that leads to Srinagar 's airport killed one soldier and the bomber, and wounded 16 members of the paramilitary Border Security Force and three civilians. Kashmir 's largest militant group, Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, claimed responsibility for the attack. Islamic militants have escalated violence ahead of the talks, including a series of grenade attacks and a daring assault Sunday in which militants dressed as policemen hurled grenades and fired bullets into a Srinagar political rally, killing five people and wounding 20 others. Four militant Islamic groups have threatened to sabotage the talks, aimed at ending a separatist insurgency in the Indian portion of Kashmir that has killed more than 67,000 people since 1989.

The meeting, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, is the second attempt by Singh to resolve the dispute over Kashmir , which both India and Pakistan claim, by bringing together Kashmiris representing various shades of opinion. The first meeting, held in New Delhi in February, was also boycotted by separatist leaders. Singh ended up meeting only with pro-India Kashmiri groups, reports the AP.