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Last Updated: Monday, 2 June, 2003, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Gandhi in rare Kashmir address
India's opposition leader, Sonia Gandhi, has addressed a rare public meeting in Indian-administered Kashmir.

More than 10,000 people turned to hear her speak in the frontier town of Baramullah on Sunday.

Sonia Gandhi
I have also borne the brunt of extremism as experienced by you
Sonia Gandhi

The rally came at the end of a two-day meeting of her Congress Party, the first time top-level mainstream politicians had gathered in Kashmir in decades.

Over the past several weeks, India and Pakistan have taken a number of steps to defuse the tension between them, particularly over Kashmir.

The rally venue was decked with Congress flags and banners, a rare sign of political activity in a state which has witnessed violence for the past 15 years.

Mrs Gandhi, whose husband and mother-in-law were both assassinated, said she sympathised with the people of Kashmir and could identify with their grief.

"Nobody can better understand the pain of Kashmiri mothers and sisters than I who have myself been a victim of terrorism," she said.

The Congress Party is a coalition partner in Kashmir of the ruling People's Democratic Party.

During the two-day meeting Mrs Gandhi reviewed the performance of Congress state governments and discussed strategy ahead of crucial state elections due later this year.

At the end of the meeting, she told journalists that her party would consider forging political alliances with other parties for the forthcoming polls.

Strong signal

The choice of Srinagar as a venue for the Congress conference was seen as a significant move.

Srinagar boat man
Many Kashmiris are tired of violence and longing for peace

"Mrs Gandhi wants to re-assure the people of Kashmir that the whole of India is behind them," a Congress spokeswoman, Ambika Soni, told the BBC.

Her visit followed a widely publicised rally by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in Srinagar in April.

Mr Vajpayee used the occasion to make a surprise offer of dialogue with Pakistan, leading to a series of peace moves by both sides.

Analysts say Sonia Gandhi is looking to regain lost ground in Kashmir, after a solid Congress performance in last year's landmark elections there.

Congress is also keen to emphasise that it has a political presence across India, from Kashmir to Kerala, and is a true national party, observers say.

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