SLUG: 2-270725 Indi/Kashmir DATE: NOTE NUMBER:









INTRO: Separatist leaders in Indian Kashmir say they hope to travel to Pakistan next month to discuss the latest peace initiatives by the Indian and Pakistani governments. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi that recent peace gestures by both countries are expected to ease tensions in Kashmir, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed more than 30-thousand lives.

TEXT: The mood among leaders of Kashmir's main separatist alliance - the All Parties Hurriyat Conference - is being described as upbeat. The Hurriyat leaders say they are planning to send a delegation to Pakistan in mid-January to meet militant groups to move the peace process forward in the insurgency-wracked region.

The decision by Kashmiri separatist leaders to travel to Islamabad comes after India extended the month-long ceasefire in Kashmir, and Pakistan announced a partial troop withdrawal along the tense Kashmir border.

Leaders of the Hurriyat Conference have welcomed both developments as "bold steps". However their position is at odds with Islamic militant groups who have firmly rejected the New Delhi's ceasefire and are continuing to wage an armed struggle for Kashmir's secession from India.

In the past, India's government has opposed visits by Kashmiri separatist leaders to Pakistan. But officials in New Delhi are widely expected to grant permission for a visit by Hurriyat officials to Islamabad in January.

Commentators say such a visit could help to bridge differences between separatist leaders and the Indian government on how to conduct talks over Kashmir.

In the past, separatist groups have insisted on three-way talks involving India, Pakistan and Kashmiri representatives. But India has strongly resisted including Pakistan in talks over Kashmir.

Now, separatist leaders may be able to hold talks directly with militant groups in Pakistan and political leaders in Islamabad before beginning a dialogue with the Indian government.

Meanwhile, India has welcomed Pakistan's anouncement that it has reduced the number of troops deployed along the Kashmir border - but says it will verify the move because it is not possible to pull out troops on such short notice. New Delhi has also not responded to Pakistan's demand for a reciprocal troop withdrawal.

India has been grappling with the Muslim separatist insurgency in Kashmir since 1989. The recent ceasefire is the New Delhi government's first significant peace initiative in the region. (SIGNED)