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The BBC's Jill McGivering:
"This appears to be a significant endorsement by the government"
 real 28k

Friday, 28 July, 2000, 21:02 GMT 22:02 UK
India appeals to militants
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
Mr Vajpayee chaired the government meeting
The Indian Government has appealed to a pro-separatist militant group in Indian-administered Kashmir to join peace talks, following the group's decision to declare a unilateral ceasefire.

The group, the Hizbul Mujahideen, has announced a three-month ceasefire.

But the group's leader, Syed Salahuddin, said the ceasefire could be called off in a few days if there was no positive response from the government.

The BBC Correspondent in Delhi said the government invitation could be a potential breakthrough in the long-running Kashmir crisis.

Indian soldiers in Kashmir
Hizbul is just one of the the militant groups
The government's statement was released late on Friday evening, after a high-level meeting chaired by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

It said the government had deliberated over the offer of peace talks made by the Hizbul Mujahideen, and had welcomed the temporary ceasefire announced by the group's leadership on Monday.

The restoration of peace in Kashmir could only be achieved through dialogue, it said, and the government would now like the leaders of Hizbul to come into the open and contact the union home secretary to work out a formula for peace talks.

It also invited all other militant groups to come forward to work towards restoring peace, though some of those groups have criticised Hizbul for its ceasefire offer.

The umbrella group for Kashmiri militant groups based in Pakistan - the United Jihad Council - has suspended Hizbul's membership, while Pakistan's main religious Jamaat-e-Islami party has severed its association with the group.

Army ceasefire?

Our correspondent says the government seems to be endorsing Hizbul's ceasefire. Previously, the government has set down pre-conditions when it has spoken about the importance of establishing dialogue.

One such pre-condition was that talks could only take place under the framework of the Indian constitution, which describes the state of Jammu-Kashmir as Indian territory.

In contrast, this latest statement does not set out any pre-conditions for dialogue.

There had been hints of progress earlier on Friday, when a senior commander in the Indian army in Srinagar told reporters the army was suspending offensive action against militant groups - reports which military leaders in Delhi subsequently denied.

The commander, Major-General Basant Singh, said any decision about a formal ceasefire on the part of the military was up to the government.

In the meantime he said the troops would remain on alert to meet any militant challenge.

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See also:

28 Jul 00 | South Asia
Kashmir offensive 'suspended'
26 Jul 00 | South Asia
Analysis: Kashmiri militants' dilemma
26 Jul 00 | South Asia
Kashmir truce condemned
24 Jul 00 | South Asia
Kashmir militants offer ceasefire
15 Jul 99 | South Asia
Flashpoint Kashmir: Special Report
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