India Hopes Kashmir Elections Will Ease Regional Tension

India will hold state elections in Kashmir beginning next month, hopeful that a good voter turnout and a peaceful and fair process will ease violence in the disputed Himalayan state and deflate support for the separatist movement.

Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh said at a news conference Friday that the polls for the 87 seats in Kashmir's State Assembly would be held in four phases, on Sept. 16 and 24, and Oct. 1 and 8.

The announcement came on a day when at least five people were killed in a series of gunbattles between security forces and suspected separatist militants in the troubled state. Pakistani officials said a day-long exchange of cross-border fire by Indian and Pakistani troops inflicted more casualties.

Analysts say a smooth vote would boost chances of renewed dialogue between India and Pakistan, which nearly went to war in June after India blamed its rival for a deadly attack on an army base in Kashmir. The South Asian nations still have a million troops along their frontier.

There was no immediate comment from Pakistan, which has backed a 12-year separatist movement in Kashmir. The nuclear-armed South Asian rivals each claim Kashmir in its entirety.

A separatist umbrella group, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said it would boycott the vote. Kashmiri separatists also have rejected past elections, charging that they are rigged.

"The announcement depicts the rigidity of the Indian government," said Abdul Ghani Bhat, leader of the coalition of nearly two dozen Kashmiri religious and political groups.

Minutes after India said the elections would be held, a grenade was lobbed at the national opposition Congress party headquarters in Srinagar, summer capital of Jammu-Kashmir state.

Mohammed Sidiqi, a Congress party activist, said there were no injuries and that he believed the attack was in response to India's announcement.

Kashmiris greeted news of the upcoming elections with trepidation.

"I hope that things will become better after the elections, but it is the days prior to the elections that scare me," said Ghulam Mohammed Najar, a bank employee in Srinagar.

Ali Mohammed, who works for a messenger service, gave a starker view: "Nothing changes. Rulers come and go, our sufferings remain the same."

In past Kashmiri elections, fear of reprisals and boycott calls have led to low turnouts and a State Assembly that has been pro-India.

The Indian government hopes this year's elections will nullify Islamabad's claim that the government in Indian Kashmir has never had true representation from residents. It also hopes to show Pakistan-based Islamic militants fighting for Kashmir's independence that Kashmiris no longer support the insurgency, which has claimed 60,000 lives.

India accuses Pakistan of financing, arming and training the Muslim insurgents, a charge Islamabad denies.

"The onus is on Pakistan to ensure that there is no violence in Jammu-Kashmir by terror elements in the run-up to the election," said Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Nirupama Rao. "It will be an acid test of Pakistan's intentions -- whether it promotes violence or desists from doing so."

Pran Chopra, an analyst with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, said India must hold open and fair elections.

"If both sides pass their tests, the Kashmir elections will surely improve chances of a renewed dialogue between India and Pakistan," Chopra said.

Meanwhile, a leader of one of the Pakistan-based guerrilla groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir said Friday that his rebels were training at bases in the forests in Indian territory, and not in Pakistan, as India claims.

"We are now giving training to youths at mobile camps in Indian-occupied Kashmir," said Syed Salahuddin, chairman of the United Jehad Council, an association of 15 militant groups.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which Pakistan believes it was robbed of during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.