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Advani Hurriyat thaw

Srinagar, Aug. 28: The Hurriyat Conference is one step closer to getting what it has long wanted — direct talks with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani.

“Yes, both the Prime Minister and I are willing to meet Hurriyat leaders whenever they come to Delhi,’’ the man who till recently regarded the separatist conglomerate as nothing more than Pakistan’s voice in Kashmir and wanted to have no dealings with it, told reporters at the end of the inter-state council meeting.

However, Advani stopped short of issuing a direct invitation and rejected the idea of a formal dialogue. “We are ready to meet them when they come to Delhi but the Hurriyat leaders also need to talk to our interlocutor .. Vohra,’’ the deputy Prime Minister said.

The Hurriyat leaders, who have lost much ground to chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party, have been eager to come back to the centre-stage by demanding direct talks with Vajpayee or Advani and not a bureaucrat like Vohra. The Hurriyat wants the meeting with Vajpayee or Advani to be the “beginning of a process of dialogue’’ but Delhi wants to wait longer.

Advani had in the past expressed strong reservations about the Hurriyat and was responsible for denying its leaders travel papers when they wanted to visit Pakistan two years ago.

For Advani, to agree to have even a cup of tea with the Hurriyat is a big step forward and reflects the subtle shift in New Delhi’s attitude to the separatists’ combine.

The shift has much to do with the change in the organisation’s leadership and the ouster of hardline, pro-Pakistani leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The organisation under Shia cleric Abbas Ansari is moderate and, Delhi believes, less inclined to follow Pakistan’s diktat.

Hurriyat leaders reserved comment on Advani’s gesture, saying they need to consider his exact words. All political groups in Kashmir, including Mufti’s party and the National Conference, have urged the Centre to talk to the Hurriyat.

Advani also warned that the Mumbai blasts and the militant strike in Srinagar during the showpiece council session would have an adverse impact on the India-Pakistan peace process.

“Our neighbour must be conscious of the fact that the happenings in Mumbai and yesterday’s attack would have an effect on the peace process,’’ he said. Delhi holds the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba responsible for both incidents.

Advani praised the chief minister and expressed “deep gratitude to Mufti saab personally, his officials and the people of Kashmir’’ for their warmth and hospitality.

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