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Valley on terror alert

Srinagar, April 17: Intelligence agencies fear a major strike by militants in Jammu and Kashmir to swing attention away from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s two-day visit to the state beginning tomorrow.

State officials said militants might attempt a headline-grabbing act elsewhere in Kashmir, particularly because of Vajpayee’s much-discussed public meeting here tomorrow afternoon. He will be the first Prime Minister to speak at such a rally in 15 years — the last was the late Rajiv Gandhi.

A successful prime ministerial visit will lend credibility to chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s government and its healing-touch approach to tackling the Kashmir problem.

“Mufti is bad news for the terrorist groups and their handlers in Pakistan. He is a definite threat to Pakistan as his attempts to bring Kashmir back on track are damaging Islamabad’s interests,” a state official said.

Security here is watertight, while the forces are on alert throughout the state. The stadium and cricket ground in Sonawar — where the rally will be held — in the heart of the city has been sealed off. Police officials say they do not expect any attempt on the Prime Minister, but nothing is being left to chance.

The militant Hizb-ul Mujahideen has issued a strike call during the visit, as has the separatist Hurriyat Conference.

“The Mufti government will go out of its way to organise a good show for the Prime Minister, but talk to the common man and find out if any of them wants to go to the meeting. The answer will be no,” said Abdul Gani Bhat, the Hurriyat chairman.

Despite Bhat’s assertion that Kashmiris have little interest in the Prime Minister’s visit, the affection for Vajpayee is obvious. “Vajpayee is a good man. But what can he do to solve the problem of unemployment in Kashmir'” asked Abdul Hamid Khan, the owner of a stationery shop in downtown Srinagar.

However, the Hurriyat chief is right in assuming there are no expectations that the Prime Minister can make a difference. “It is up to India and Pakistan (to settle the Kashmir dispute). The people are nowhere in the picture. For us, economic issues are much more important,” Hamid Khan added.

Bhat does not doubt Vajpayee’s sincerity, but only his and his government’s ability to attempt a breakthrough. “Are his Cabinet colleagues willing to sit down and thrash out a permanent solution by sitting across the table with Pakistan as well as the representatives of Kashmir' Unless he can change the mindset of his party and his senior ministers and break the ice, his good intentions are wasted,” Bhat said.

He expected international pressure on the two countries to reopen talks to mount. “India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and the entire international community is worried about a nuclear face-off over Kashmir. With Iraq out of the way, there will be added pressure by the US and its allies on India and Pakistan to engage,” Bhat added.

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