Indian lawmakers in Kashmir to seek ways to end escalating anti-India unrest

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — A delegation of Indian lawmakers launched a mission Monday in Kashmir to find ways of defusing months of deadly unrest, but their trip was immediately derided by the Himalayan region's separatists as a publicity stunt.

Nearly 40 lawmakers from all major Indian national parties met Kashmiri leaders in Srinagar — the main city in the Indian portion of the divided region — to find ways to address long-standing demands for self-rule or a merger with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

It was unclear how fruitful the mission would be, after Kashmiri separatists said they would not meet the lawmakers and dismissed the trip as grandstanding by the Indian government.

Kashmir has been rocked by widespread protests against Indian rule since June, with at least 106 people killed in clashes with security forces — including four who died Sunday. Human rights group Amnesty International has urged Indian authorities to investigate the killings and order government forces to stop the use of lethal force against demonstrators.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a top separatist leader, described the Indian lawmakers' visit as "a facade, a joke."

"They have converted the entire Kashmir region into a prison and now a delegation has been sent to meet the besieged people," Farooq told The Associated Press.

Five members of the delegation were able to meet with Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a key separatist leader spearheading the current agitation, in the presence of journalists.

"We cannot accept this situation where innocent lives are lost. We've come to understand the ground situation so that normalcy is restored," said Sitaram Yechury, an influential parliamentarian and communist leader who was part of the delegation.

Geelani said talks could only be held if India accepts that Kashmir is an international dispute, releases all political prisoners and starts the withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of troops from the region.

"It's a dream to restore normalcy unless India accepts this proposal. We will not surrender," he said.

Yechury later said the lawmakers would formally convey Geelani's proposal to the federal government.

Earlier, the entire delegation led by Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram met separately with representatives of local pro-India groups including Kashmir's ruling National Conference party and the opposition People's Democratic Party.

It was not immediately known what transpired at those meetings.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference — an umbrella group of separatist political and religious groups — proposed setting up committees comprising leaders from both India and Pakistan as a way forward in resolving the decades-old Kashmir dispute.

Kashmir is divided between the neighboring countries and is claimed by both.

"On our part, we are ready and willing to engage and sustain in a meaningful and irreversible process of dialogue and jointly develop and implement a solution to the Kashmir dispute that is acceptable to all sides — India, Pakistan and the people of Jammu and Kashmir," said a memorandum sent to the Indian lawmakers.

India's reaction to the proposal was not immediately known.

India has so far rejected Hurriyat's demand for separatist leaders to be part of the India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir.

"We are wary that your visit today, however well-intentioned, represents only an effort at a short-term crisis management, and that there is no clear commitment to a path toward effective resolution of the Kashmir issue," Hurriyat's memorandum added.

Thousands of armed troops patrolled the deserted streets of Srinagar and other major towns Monday and enforced a curfew for the eighth day.

Three men hurt during street battles with government forces last week died in hospitals in Srinagar on Sunday, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Fresh protests erupted in Sopore town on Monday, a day after a 22-year-old woman was killed by security forces. Six people were wounded when authorities opened fire to disperse a crowd of about 2,000 people who blocked a highway near Sopore to protest the killing, said another police officer also speaking on condition of anonymity.

As news of the shooting spread, more people poured into the streets, the officer said.

Since 1989, a violent separatist insurgency and an ensuing crackdown by Indian forces have killed an estimated 68,000 people, mostly civilians, in Kashmir.

Tens of thousands of mainly Muslim protesters have taken to the streets in recent months, stoning troops and demanding independence from Hindu-dominated India or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan.