Pakistan responds positively to India offer for peace talks |

Pakistan responds positively to India offer for peace talks

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – In a breakthrough for peace efforts, Pakistan on Thursday welcomed India’s surprise offer of talks on easing a variety of conflicts between the two nuclear powers.

However, Pakistan was critical of India for canceling a cease-fire in disputed Kashmir, saying the move gives Indian soldiers free rein for ”state terrorism against the Kashmiri people.”

Still, Pakistan’s acceptance of India’s gesture represents a major change in efforts to bring the rival nuclear powers to the negotiating table following a two-year lull. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.

Pakistan’s military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf will respond ”in a positive light” to India’s overture, Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar told reporters Thursday in the capital of Islamabad. A day earlier, Indian Defense Minister Jaswant Singh announced both the end of a six-month cease-fire in Kashmir and the invitation to Musharraf for peace talks.

Pakistan has long said it was willing to hold talks, but India until now insisted it stop cross-border attacks by Islamic militants in Kashmir, a divided Himalayan territory that is a main focus of dispute between the two countries.

Bloody fighting two years ago along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan caused the break-up of negotiations. Those talks were aimed at easing the numerous conflicts between the South Asian rivals, both of which have nuclear weapons.

The offer to resume talks and the positive response were accompanied by harsh rhetoric from both sides.

The cease-fire’s end has ”given the Indian forces a carte blanche to continue state terrorism against the Kashmiri people,” said Pakistan’s Sattar.

”Many terrorist organizations continue to operate from Pakistani soil,” said Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Raminder Singh Jassal.

India called a cease-fire in late November in an attempt to bring Kashmiri militants into peace talks. But most of the militants rejected the truce and attacks persisted, and the government had to admit the initiative’s failure as it ended the cease-fire.

But the Foreign Ministry said that relative calm along the Line of Control in Kashmir contributed to the decision to offer talks with Islamabad.

Several people interviewed Thursday in Kashmir expressed hope the breakthrough would put an end to their long suffering.

”It is good that India has realized that without involving Pakistan, no solution can be found,” said Nazi Ahmed Mir, a shopkeeper in the Indian Kashmiri city of Srinagar.

The militant Hezb-ul-Mujahedeen group welcomed India’s invitation, saying Pakistan’s inclusion in any talks on Kashmir were essential.

But Abdullah Muntazir, secretary general of the militant Kashmiri separatist group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, ”categorically” rejected the Indian offer as ”an attempt to weaken Jihad (holy war) in occupied Kashmir.”

More than 30,000 people have been killed in Kashmir since Islamic separatists launched an insurgency in 1989, demanding independence or a merger with Pakistan. Human rights activists put the death toll at 60,000.

Police in Kashmir said 11 militants were killed in separate gun battles since the end of the ceasefire late Wednesday.

Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in Hindu-dominated India.

The Indian Foreign Ministry’s Jassal said the invitation to Musharraf ”will be delivered shortly,” but did not specify when.

When and where Indian and Pakistani leaders would meet was not immediately known. Nor was it clear whether representatives of Kashmiri militant groups fighting Indian forces would attend.

Sattar told reporters that Pakistan believes such groups, who are fighting for either independence or a merger with Pakistan, should be represented.

”They are the principal party. It is their life and their futures that are at stake,” he said.

Separately, India released and repatriated 18 Pakistani imprisoned for spying or entering India illegally. The prisoners, most of them young men, had been held even after their terms had ended. An Indian court ordered such prisoners returned.

The United States has long been urging India to agree to talks with Musharraf.

”I think the symbolism of the move is as important as the expectations of whether it will produce a breakthrough,” said Riffat Hussain, chairman of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. ”It raises expectations about the prospect of peace between India and Pakistan much beyond anything anybody had expected.”

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