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Kashmir: India frees prisoners

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NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) -- Indian authorities in Kashmir said on Sunday they had freed 34 prisoners and announced new incentives to woo militants to give up the gun, aimed at boosting moves to bring peace to the troubled region.

The announcement by India's only Muslim-majority state came ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha, and followed last month's breakthrough talks between New Delhi and Kashmir's main political separatist group.

The prisoners were released from jails and detention centers across the region over the last week to allow them to join their families for the festival, said a senior official.

"The entire process was carried out away from media glare as we don't want them to be made heroes," he told Reuters.

The released prisoners included sympathizers of militant groups and rebels accused of minor crimes, he said.

Under the new package to rehabilitate militants, the state government would deposit 150,000 rupees ($3,300) in bank accounts for militants who surrender, allowing them to use the cash only after three years of "normal life and good behavior."

They would also get a monthly allowance of 2,000 rupees, training for new careers and cheap loans to start businesses, said S.S. Bloeria, Jammu and Kashmir's top bureaucrat.

"This aims at providing an opportunity for the return of those militants who have undergone a change of heart in the changing atmosphere for peace in the state and want to shun the path of violence to join the mainstream," Bloeria told Reuters.

Officials said the new package was more attractive than earlier measures as militants for the first time had been offered a large cash incentive and employment opportunities.

They said about 2,000 militants had surrendered so far under rehabilitation programmes launched since 1995.

The latest steps follow unprecedented January 22 talks between Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, an alliance of two dozen political, religious and community groups, aimed at ending the 14-year revolt against Indian rule in the region.

The release of prisoners was a longstanding demand of Hurriyat.

The new moves also come two weeks ahead of talks between Indian and Pakistani officials, the first in nearly three years, to tackle a wide range of disputes between the nuclear-armed neighbors, including the vexed Kashmir dispute.

India accuses Pakistan of fomenting militant violence in Kashmir where more than 40,000 people have been killed since 1989. Pakistan denies the charges.

Militant groups have opposed the peace moves and vowed to continue attacks in Kashmir.

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