Srinagar, Nov. 6: Shivraj Patil arrived here on his first visit as home minister with a clear message for the Hurriyat Conference not to link a trip to Pakistan with talks with the Centre.
Last week, Hurriyat chief Mirwaiz Umer Farooq agreed to restart talks with Delhi ' an initiative of the previous National Democratic Alliance government ' only after they were allowed to travel to Pakistan to consult the separatist leadership based there.
Patil said the Centre may not have a problem meeting a request of the Kashmiri separatist leaders to go to Pakistan at a time when it was pushing to open a bus link between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But he made it clear that Delhi did not appreciate the Pakistan visit rider to the talks.
On a day he delivered the message, militants set off a blast in Srinagar and attacked a BSF camp in Sopore, killing three persons. Patil will visit Jammu and its border areas tomorrow before going to Leh, where he will wrap up his tour.
At a news conference, Patil tried unsuccessfully to shift the focus away from the Hurriyat to development issues. A few questions later, he had to react to Farooq's demand.
In an obvious attempt to delink the Hurriyat's proposed Pakistan visit from the future of its talks with the Centre, the home minister indicated that the separatist conglomerate should approach the government through proper channels for clearance. 'We can consider it.' I do not see any problems,' he said.
He also indicated that it was the Hurriyat and not the Centre that needed to take the next step to further dialogue.
'We have already declared that the Centre was ready for unconditional talks' Talks start with (behind-the-curtain) talks.' not invitations,' he said in a clear signal that the separatists should not expect a formal invitation till they convey their willingness to match the Centre step for step.
The home ministry believes it is not the invitation but Pakistan's arm-twisting that has kept the Hurriyat away from the negotiating table.
Two fidayeens, backed by a hail of automatic fire, stormed the heavily guarded BSF camp before dawn by hurling grenades and injured six personnel, one of whom succumbed to injuries. One of the attackers was gunned down and another escaped.
Late this afternoon, militants hurled a powerful hand grenade at a passing army vehicle at Lal Mandi here, killing two army soldiers and wounding a shopkeeper.
Amid the upheaval, Patil spent his first day meeting several delegations ' political and non-political ' where talks revolved around the problems being faced by the people, but inevitably veered round to the peace talks and the future.
Besides preparing the ground for the Prime Minister's visit, Patil is believed to have held discussions with chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed on the proposed Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road link.