Separatists welcome Kashmir talks
NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- A faction of moderate Kashmiri separatists has welcomed a landmarks talks offer from the Indian government but say they also want to discuss a solution to the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan.
The moderate All Parties Hurriyat Conference -- a grouping of religious and political parties pushing for Kashmir to separate from India -- met on Thursday to discuss the offer from New Delhi.
"There is no alternative available for the people of Kashmir but talking," said Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, a spokesman for one faction of the Hurriyat. "Talking not for the pleasure of it, but talking with wisdom."
The Hurriyat "has decided that within 10 days we will come up with a program, on the basis of which discussions will be held with India and Pakistan," Bhat said.
After years of refusing to talk with Kashmiri separatist groups, India announced on Wednesday it was prepared to hold negotiations with the Hurriyat over the troubled region.
Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani will lead the talks that New Delhi said would to take place sometime after the Diwali religious festival, which will be celebrated across India this coming weekend.
Bhat said the entire Hurriyat must speak in one voice and called on dissident groups within the conference to "return to the fold" to respond to India's offer.
Several factions within the Hurriyat conference have refused to open talks with India unless Pakistan is included.
India has been opposed to hold three-way talks with Pakistan on Kashmir. But the Hurriyat has sought to get past this by speaking to both sides separately.
Bhat said he hoped India, Pakistan and the Kashmiri groups would be able to resolve the dispute soon, adding that he hoped 2004 would be the year that the Kashmiri conflict ends once and for all.
"We must understand that if we fail in our duty, history will never ever forgive us," he added. "We think the developments are encouraging."
India announced its willingness to talk with the Hurriyat as part of a multi-layered package of proposals in which India will try to reach out to its nuclear rival, Pakistan.
The U.S. State Department welcomed India's announcement to upgrade transportation and people-to-people contacts between India and Pakistan.
State Department Deputy Spokesman J. Adam Ereli called the overtures a "major step toward establishing normal links" between the countries, which could provide "a foundation for real progress in resolving differences between India and Pakistan."
Ereli also said the Bush administration had been encouraging engagement between India and Kashmiri separatists and "we welcome steps that do that."
Among the proposals, said Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, will be technical talks on the resumption of civil aviation between the two nations.
The package also includes a number of measures to increase transportation by air, rail, bus and on foot between the two powers. One of the most striking proposals calls for bus service to be started between Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, and Muzaffarabad on the Pakistani side of the Kashmir border. (Full story)
In August, the Hurriyat called for talks with New Delhi -- a divisive move within the alliance. Some in the Hurriyat said talks could only take place with top Indian leadership, while others said negotiations would have to include Pakistan, the third party in the conflict.
The Hurriyat has since split into two factions, with the more hard-line leaders saying any talks would have to be unconditional.
The Hurriyat refuses to recognize India's sovereignty over Kashmir, but has shunned the violence of militant groups fighting Indian rule in the region. Tens of thousands of people have died in Kashmir since the separatist revolt turned violent in 1989.
In 1948, months after British India was divided into independent India and the new state of Pakistan, the Hindu king of Kashmir acceded to Indian rule in return for military protection from New Delhi. India and Pakistan have since fought two wars and one limited conflict over Kashmir.
-- From CNN Correspondents Ram Ramgopal in New Delhi and Ash-har Quraishi in Islamabad