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Musharref Visits India For Discussions, Cricket

Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search) arrived in India on Saturday to watch a cricket match and discuss the Kashmir dispute, as the South Asian rivals tried to give a new push to efforts to end more than five decades of hostility.

Wearing a traditional white flowing shirt and trousers, Musharraf waved after landing in Jaipur, capital of northern Rajasthan state, and took off immediately in an Indian military helicopter for the city of Ajmer to worship at the shrine of a 12th century Sufi Muslim saint. Later Saturday, he was to fly to New Delhi to be hosted at a dinner by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (search).

Musharraf is to pack in at least three meetings with Singh, watch a match between the two countries' cricket teams and meet leaders of an umbrella group of political parties from the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir (search) during his two-day visit. The talks are part of a sweeping peace process.

"I am optimistic about the success of my talks," Musharraf told reporters at a military base near Islamabad before leaving for India.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which is divided between them. Both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety.

The long-simmering dispute gained international attention after the two countries conducted nuclear tests in 1998, raising fears that another conflict could escalate into a nuclear war.

Musharraf last visited India in 2001 for a summit at the city of Agra with then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But the two leaders failed to reach any agreement on Kashmir.

New Delhi accuses Islamabad of arming and training insurgents and helping them cross into India's portion of Kashmir. Pakistan says it gives political and moral support to the rebels, but denies providing military support. More than 66,000 people have died in the conflict in the past 15 years.

The two countries have come under international pressure to peacefully sort out their differences, a process they began last year with a dialogue intended to resolve all issues, including Kashmir.

Last week, the two countries launched a bus service for divided families in Kashmir, a move welcomed by the international community.

Musharraf said before leaving for India that he wanted Kashmiri separatist politicians to be part of India-Pakistan talks.

"I strongly feel that Kashmiris should also be part of the peace process. I will make them part of it," he said.

India has rejected demands from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the separatist umbrella group, for inclusion in three-way talks. Hurriyat leaders are scheduled to meet with Musharraf in New Delhi on Sunday.

Musharraf's visit comes as Syed Salahuddin, the head of Kashmir's largest militant group, the Pakistan-based Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, said he is ready to hold peace talks if invited by New Delhi.

Musharraf was expected to spend a half hour at the tomb of Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti, in Ajmer, 235 miles west of New Delhi. The saint came to India from Persia in the 12th century.

On Saturday, thousands of pilgrims visited the tomb on the anniversary of the saint's death 772 years ago, walking barefoot and with their heads covered around the silver platform surrounding the tomb.

Hundreds of police and plainclothes security guards were posted around the shrine and in nearby buildings.

A blue and white banner hanging across the entrance of the shrine complex said: "We welcome the peace process."

"I hope Gen. Musharraf will carry a message of love and peace from here. The bitterness should end," said Israr Mohammad, 40, sitting in his sweet shop near the shrine.

Musharraf had been scheduled to visit Ajmer after the talks in Agra in 2001, but they ended badly and the Pakistani leader left without visiting.

"This time he is starting his visit to India by praying at the shrine to seek the saint's blessing," Mohammad said.

Ajmer, a desert town in western Rajasthan state, has a population of 500,000 people, 15 percent of whom are Muslims.