The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Singh sets up Hurriyat first date

New Delhi, Aug. 31: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today invited moderate Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq for talks early next week to resume the government’s stalled dialogue with Kashmir’s main political separatist alliance.

After news channels flashed the invite, conveyed verbally by Rajya Sabha Congress MP Saifuddin Soz, the Hurriyat met in Srinagar and decided to accept it.

The September 5 talks, the Hurriyat’s first engagement at the highest-level with the Centre, will be held nine days ahead of Singh’s meeting with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in New York to push forward a slow peace process between the neighbours.

“The Prime Minister has invited the Hurriyat chairman and other leaders for talks,” Singh’s media adviser Sanjaya Baru said.

“It was our demand that the talks should be held at the highest level,” Mirwaiz, who would lead the delegation, was quoted by PTI as saying. “So we have agreed to meet the Prime Minister on the scheduled date.” The Hurriyat has all along insisted on talking to the Prime Minister though the Centre had proposed a meeting with home minister Shivraj Patil. The last high-level talks its leaders had in Delhi was with former deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani last year when the NDA was in power.

Official sources said the initiative came entirely from Singh who reportedly believes it is an important aspect of his Kashmir peace drive. The groundwork was done by Soz, who switched to the Congress from the National Conference after falling out with Farooq Abdullah; senior bureaucrat and former adviser to the Kashmir governor Wajahat Habibullah, and journalist Prem Shankar Jha.

The sources said Singh has not drawn up a “framework” for the talks. “He will just hear them out,” said a source.

Hurriyat sources said they would raise three issues: release of Kashmiri prisoners, human rights violations and improvement of the ground situation.

Mirwaiz said the invitation was a “welcome step”. “The time has come when we need to address the political aspect of Jammu and Kashmir in a sincere and serious manner. We believe that Kashmir needs a political settlement, a peaceful settlement in accordance with the wishes and aspirations of the people.”

In Delhi, Soz played down his role as the man behind the scenes. “What is more important is that the Hurriyat has accepted the invitation.”

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said the Prime Minister’s invite was a “positive” development that “will help further promote the atmosphere of peace in the state”.

Omar Abdullah, the president of the Opposition National Conference, also welcomed the talks offer.Without naming the hardline faction of the Hurriyat, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mufti said he hoped that the talks would lead to a wider dialogue in which other groups in the state would also take part. The chief minister appealed to militants to “shun violence and join the process of talks”.

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