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SLUG: 2-306932 India / Kashmir









INTRO: In Indian Kashmir, at least four people have been killed in a standoff between security forces and suspected Islamic militants. As Anjana Pasricha reports, the violence erupted as Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee held a high-profile meeting in Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar.

TEXT: The overnight clash began after two suspected Islamic militants rushed into a hotel in downtown Srinagar, and took several people hostage.

The militants took refuge in the hotel on Wednesday after lobbing grenades at the main telegraph exchange.

Troops stormed the hotel early Thursday. The clash sparked a fire, which engulfed the building. Among those killed were a former state legislator, Javed Shah, and his bodyguard.

The hotel is just a few kilometers away from where Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and top administrators of Indian states were holding a two-day meeting.

Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani told reporters the Lashkar-e-Taiba group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Earlier, a little known militant group Al Mansoorian had called news agencies in Kashmir to claim responsibility.

The violence in Kashmir came despite massive security arrangements made for the national government's inter-state council meeting, which concluded Thursday. Besides Prime Minister Vajpayee, senior cabinet officials and chief ministers of the Indian states attended the Srinagar meeting.

It is the first time the meeting was held outside the capital New Delhi. The purpose was to demonstrate that normalcy is returning to strife-torn Kashmir, which has been wracked by a 14-year Muslim separatist insurgency.

In Kashmir, Mr. Vajpayee renewed a peace offer to Kashmiri separatists, saying his government is willing to promote a dialogue with the separatists if they reject violence.

Later, Deputy Prime Minister Advani told reporters that normal conditions were slowly returning to

Kashmir. He pointed out hundreds of tourists had returned to the region.

On Thursday, Srinagar shops and businesses reopened. A day earlier, much of the city had been shut down in response to a call for a strike by Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Party Huriyat Conference.

More than a dozen Islamic guerilla groups have been fighting since 1989 to free Kashmir from Indian control. More than 35,000 people have been killed in violence related to the insurgency. (signed)


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