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India orders troop reduction in Kashmir
Updated: 2004-11-12 09:38

India's prime minister on Thursday ordered the reduction of troops in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir this winter, citing a decline in separatist violence in the disputed Himalayan region.

The announcement coincided with a grenade attack by suspected militants on a paramilitary camp in Srinigar, summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, which set off a gunfight in which an Indian security guard was killed and three were wounded, police officer Javed Ahmed said. Two attackers also were killed.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the forces would be withdrawn starting this winter and ending in March, though he did not disclose how many troops would be cut.

"In recognition of the improvement in the situation, the government has decided to reduce the deployment of troops this winter," Singh said in a statement days ahead of his planned visit to the strife-torn Indian state.

"We cannot, however, afford to relax our vigil. If the levels of infiltration and terrorist violence increase, more troops as necessary will be redeployed," Singh said.

Brahma Chellaney, a New Delhi-based defense analyst, said the real test will come when the snow melts in the summer, making it easy for militants to cross the mountain passes.

"In recent weeks there has been some drop in infiltration," he said. "But we do not know if this is because of the difficult climate conditions or a result of Pakistan's action against terror groups."

Pakistan described Singh's announcement as a step in the right direction but said it would wait for details.

The Indian decision will "definitely help ease the situation in Jammu and Kashmir," Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan said.

"Pakistan has always maintained that the people of Jammu and Kashmir should also be made part of the confidence building and dialogue. This step by the Indian government on the eve of Eid al-Fitr should ease tension and enhance comfort level for the Kashmiris."

Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Kashmiris reacted cautiously to Singh's announcement.

"We welcome this announcement. But what matters is not the number of troops that will be cut but the way the security forces behave with the people in Kashmir," said Abbas Ansari, a moderate leader of the Hurriyat, Kashmir's main separatist alliance.

India has deployed about 1 million troops in the Himalayan region since 1989, when more than a dozen Islamic guerrilla groups began fighting for independence of the Indian-held portion of Kashmir, or its merger with neighboring Pakistan.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which has been divided between the South Asian rivals since they gained independence from Britain in 1947, but is claimed by both in its entirety.

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