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Kashmiri separatist leader killed

Staff and wires

SRINAGAR, India -- A moderate Kashmiri separatist leader has been shot dead in Indian Kashmir, dealing a fresh blow to efforts to bring peace to the troubled Himalayan region.

Witnesses said Abdul Gani Lone of the main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, was shot by two unidentified gunmen during a meeting in Srinagar, summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state.

"He fell down and started reciting Koranic verses. When the gunmen realized that he was still alive they fired again and he died there," Lone's driver, Abdul Rashid, told Reuters news agency.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is visiting southern Kashmir, said Lone's death would mean "we shall have to work harder for peace to return to Kashmir".

"I want to express my condolences," Vajpayee said.

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"He (Lone) was working for peace; that is why he was killed."

Kashmir is India's only Muslim-majority state and over the past 12 years more than 33,000 people have been killed as nearly a dozen rebel groups have fought rule from the central government in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, India is preparing for a possible conflict with Pakistan after tensions between the two countries soared last week when 34 people died in a rebel raid in Kashmir, which India has blamed on Pakistan-based Kashmir separatists.

Nearly one million troops backed by tanks, warplanes and missiles have been mobilized on both sides of the border between India and Pakistan, which have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.

Both sides continued to fire mortars, artillery shells and bullets at each other for the fifth straight day Tuesday. Thousands of villagers on both sides of the international border in the Himalayan region have fled their homes as battles between India and Pakistan continues to escalate.

Pakistan on Tuesday said at least 10 people have been killed on its side and India reports at least six deaths there.

Pakistani authorities say the Indian fire has been indiscriminate.

Vajpayee is expected to visit people injured in the attack and will visit forward areas, where he will try to lift troop morale. He was also expected to give a nationwide television address during the three-day trip.

In another sign of increasing tension, the Indian government said it was sending troops to the border from the heart of Gujarat state, where they had been deployed to halt bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims.

"Taking into view the situation on the border," the army is being sent "to where they have an operational role," an army spokesman told Reuters.

The 1,300 soldiers were deployed in March in the western border state where some 950 people have been killed since India's worst religious violence in a decade erupted in late February.

The U.S. has meanwhile announced plans to send another senior official to the region to defuse growing tensions.

The U.S. State Department has told CNN that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was likely to travel to the subcontinent in early June, reflecting the Bush administration's "strong concerns" about the deteriorating situation.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also urging the two nations to exercise restraint, while China joined in the chorus of nations urging restraint.

Officials say they are working out exactly how Armitage's visit might help both sides climb down from what the United States fears is the brink of war.

His trip follows a visit to India and Pakistan by Christina Rocca, assistant secretary for South Asia, who traveled to the region last week in an effort to lower tension between the two countries over the disputed territory Kashmir.

"The United States is involved, has been involved, will remain involved in doing whatever we can to help these two governments lessen the tension," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.

Defence Minister in Kashmir

While Vajpayee travels to Kashmir, Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes is due to visit front-line soldiers in the northwestern state of Rajasthan.

So far India has refused to hold talks with Pakistan saying Islamabad has not done enough to stop cross-border incursions by Islamic militants into Indian Kashmir.

Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman expressed hope that India would come to the negotiating table to resolve their differences after India said it would retaliate if Pakistani troops attacked its frontier positions.

"We hope that ultimately India will see reason and come to the negotiating table," Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan said at a press conference Monday.

Khan rejected claims by India that Pakistan was sending terrorists into the Indian part of Kashmir, saying there "is no cross-border movement".

He also said Pakistan would allow international observers to verify the claim.

This weekend, India expelled Pakistan's ambassador to New Delhi to protest what it calls Islamabad's support for Islamic militants, a move the State Department indicated was unhelpful.

"We think the surest way to lower tensions and resolve the disputes between the neighbors is through more dialogue between them, not less," Boucher said.

'Civilians targeted'

Officials said that despite the excellent cooperation the United States has received from Pakistan, there are more confidence-building measures Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf could take to prove he is serious about curbing terrorism, such as ensuring that Pakistani militants stop launching attacks on the Indian side of the border in Kashmir.

But Pakistan says it is unable stop the militants and denies giving them assistance.

Meanwhile, one senior administration official told CNN the U.S. had received assurances New Delhi would not take any military action to retaliate against Pakistan in advance of Armitage's visit to the region.

But the same senior official said that the U.S. was seeing "signals" on the ground that India was moving in the direction of taking military action against Pakistan.

"When you've deployed that many people for that long a period of time and you've had provocations, there's an inevitability that you have to use them," the official said.

"The Indian army is deliberately targeting our civilians and the Pakistan army is retaliating wherever it is required," a Pakistan army spokesman, Brig. Saulat Raza, told the Associated Press news agency.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh earlier told reporters that "retaliatory fire assaults ... shall be conducted every time any such incident is committed by Pakistan" against Indian border targets.

India and Pakistan routinely fire at each other across the frontier, but Indian analysts say the current crisis is the worst since an 11-week border conflict in Kashmir in 1999, which nearly developed into war.

More than a dozen Islamic groups have been fighting for Kashmir's independence from India since the militant insurgency began in 1989.

-- CNN State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel, Producer Elise Labott and New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra contributed to this report.




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