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Kashmir leaders to visit Pakistan

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the All Party Hurriyat Conference moderate faction
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: Kashmiris must have a united policy

Leaders of a moderate faction opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir have accepted an invitation from Pakistan to travel there for talks on 2 June.

Moderate All Party Hurriyat Conference leaders in Indian-administered Kashmir will travel on the new bus service that crosses the divided region.

It is the first time India has allowed the leaders to travel to Pakistan as a representative group.

More than 40,000 people have died in 14 years of hardline insurgency.

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Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat's moderate faction, said on Wednesday: "We have decided to visit Pakistan on 2 June. It will be a big step towards the resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

"I will formulate the delegation [on Thursday] and later apply for travel documents."

Mr Farooq said the delegation would meet leaders of the governing and opposition parties in Pakistan and Pakistan-ruled Kashmir, and commanders of militant groups.

We feel the time has come when all the Kashmiris, including the militant leadership, have to sit together to formulate a united approach and a united policy
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq,
All Party Hurriyat Conference

The Hurriyat's hardline faction, headed by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has not yet responded to Pakistan's invitation.

It is the first invitation Pakistan has extended to the Hurriyat, although some members have travelled as individuals.

And it is the first time the Hurriyat has been allowed to visit Pakistan officially. Delhi has always said it recognises only the elected government in its Jammu and Kashmir state.

However, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was allowed to meet the moderate leaders when he visited Delhi last month, ostensibly to watch a cricket match between India and Pakistan.

The Hurriyat is the main Kashmiri separatist alliance, encompassing about two dozen political factions, some of them hardliners who want to merge with Pakistan and who oppose the new bus service.

The service began on 7 April between Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir and Muzaffarabad in the Pakistani sector.

Optimistic

President Musharraf, talking to the Daily Times newspaper on Tuesday, said of the moderate leaders' visit: "Now we have a breakthrough. [Indian] Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has allowed them to travel to Pakistan.

"So once they talk to us and they also talk to the Indian government, which we will try to facilitate, we shall have a trilateral arrangement going."

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir since independence in 1947.

President Musharraf said recently he was optimistic that a solution could be found.

He said: "I strongly believe - if we really are sincere about reaching a final peace - it would be more possible that it is reached between us two."

But analysts say huge problems need to be overcome, particularly differences over whether the Line of Control that separates the region could become a border and the demilitarisation of both Indian forces and the hardline separatist insurgents.

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