India looks to cut troops to boost Kashmir peace
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India could reduce troops in parts of Kashmir and allow greater access to visitors from the Pakistani side, a top official said on Friday, as part of a political solution to months of violent anti-India protests.
But India's army chief tempered expectations of an immediate withdrawal, saying there was "no need" to reduce the troops deployed. More than 100 people were killed in the protests, which started in June and were the biggest since an armed revolt against Indian rule erupted in 1989 in the majority Muslim region.
The unrest has quietened down following official promises of a political solution, but could flare again if India does not come up with a credible plan.
Renewed strife in the region would put the Indian government under further pressure as it tries to fend opposition attacks over corruption charges and public anger at high inflation.
Home Secretary G.K. Pillai told Reuters the government was looking at cutting troops by "25 percent in 12 months from populated areas". The Himalayan region is at the heart of a six decade territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.
"If we can manage with local police, that would be the most ideal situation, and this is one of the confidence-building measures, that people don't get harassed by the over-presence of security forces," Pillai later told reporters.
"If peace comes, if violence is not there, people are comfortable, we can gradually reduce our presence and make sure that all forces are there only at the border for preventing infiltration."
Pillai said the government was also considering giving Pakistani Kashmiris six-month, multiple entry permits to visit relatives on the Indian side. They now get a 15-day permit.
But speaking at a news conference the same day, India's army chief dampened expectations of an immediate troop reduction.
"We have not felt the need so far to reduce the deployment. If they want to reduce paramilitary and police, I won't say anything," said V.K. Singh told reporters in New Delhi.
Kashmiri separatists dismissed Pillai's offer and sought full withdrawal of Indian forces, numbering about half a million, including soldiers across the disputed region.
"India is trying to hoodwink the international community by announcing such things," Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a senior separatist leader seen as the face of the June protests, said.
Last month, India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the contours of a political solution to the protests were expected within a few months.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, who both claim it in full. They have twice gone to war over Kashmir.
This is why any lasting peace in the region is unlikely without the involvement of Pakistan, and whatever solution India comes up with may only help douse the current round of protests and not resolve the separatist revolt that has killed thousands.
India announced an eight-point confidence-building initiative in September that helped calm the June protests.
It scaled back security in the region, offered talks, gave
compensation to the families of dead protesters and promised to review the scope for limiting a much-hated law that gives the military sweeping powers to search, arrest or shoot.
(Additional reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq and Henry Foy; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Alex Richardson)
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