- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent moves to restore peace in Kashmir were encouraged by successful elections in the state in 2002 and positive steps by archrival Pakistan, Indian Ambassador to Washington Ronen Sen said yesterday.

Mr. Sen said a reduction in violence in the disputed region allowed his government to reduce troop levels in Kashmir for the first time in 15 years.

On Wednesday, New Delhi began to withdraw an estimated 40,000 troops out of more than 500,000 stationed in Kashmir.

Mr. Singh concluded a visit to Kashmir yesterday with pledges of increased aid to the region and an appeal for militants to lay down their arms, but the main separatist alliance stalled the peace process at the last moment.

Leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference responded to his offers of dialogue by demanding to hold talks with Pakistan first, a stipulation that Indian officials have roundly rejected.

“I have not laid down any preconditions, and I don’t expect anyone else to lay down preconditions,” Mr. Singh told reporters at the end of his two-day visit.

It was the Indian leader’s first visit to the state since he came to power in May. His appeal was accompanied with offers of considerable economic aid: a $5.2 billion assistance plan and the lifting of a two-year freeze on hiring for government jobs.

Mr. Sen told editors and reporters at a luncheon at The Washington Times that he did not see Hurriyat’s reaction as a setback, but rather as a stumbling block that could be overcome.

India’s outreach to Jammu and Kashmir, he said, was part of a larger process that was well under way.

Mr. Sen said the breakthrough began with democratic elections in Jammu and Kashmir state in late 2002, was encouraged by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s stated commitment to eliminate terrorist activities in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and was boosted by a “warm” meeting between the Indian and Pakistani leaders in New York in September.

Kashmir is divided between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan and has been the cause of two out of the three wars between the two countries.

More than 50,000 people have been killed in the state since a revolt against Indian rule began in 1989. New Delhi repeatedly has accused Islamabad of supporting militant separatists, but Pakistan has denied giving them any material support.

“It is in our vital interest … to get back on track” in normalizing the relationship with Pakistan, Mr. Sen said.

Gen. Musharraf told leaders from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on Wednesday that all sides — Indians, Kashmiris and Pakistanis — had to be flexible and move forward toward a solution for the torn region, but rejected permanently dividing the state.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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