NEW DELHI — Separatist leaders and India's government called Thursday for an end to violence in Kashmir after their first direct talks since an insurgent revolt against Indian rule in the disputed territory began 15 years ago.
The 2 1/2 hours of talks between members of a moderate faction of the All Party Hurriyat Conference and India's hawkish deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, were seen as a good start on what is likely to be a long and difficult effort to resolve one of the world's most dangerous conflicts.
"It was agreed that the only way forward is to ensure that all forms of violence at all levels should come to an end," said a joint statement read by Abdul Ghani Bhat, a veteran separatist leader in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir.
"The talks were amicable, free, frank and fruitful," the statement said, "and it was agreed that the next round of discussion would take place in the latter part of March."
During the talks, Advani agreed to review a list of political prisoners being held in Indian jails without trial.
"The [Kashmiri] delegation stressed that an honorable and durable solution should be found through dialogue," the statement said.
The Kashmiri leaders are scheduled to meet today with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who this month agreed to start peace talks with neighboring Pakistan over Kashmir and other issues.
Both India and Pakistan have laid claim to Kashmir since first going to war over it in 1947, when Britain granted them independence. They have fought three of their four wars over the Himalayan territory and came to the brink of a fourth one there after India blamed Pakistan for a December 2001 assault on India's Parliament building that left 14 people dead, including the five militants who launched the attack.
In the last decade and a half, more than 60,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in fighting between the armies of Pakistan and India and between India and separatist militants. The militants seek independence for the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan.
The competing claims between India and the separatists are so entrenched that expectations were low for Thursday's groundbreaking talks. But the mood after the meeting appeared surprisingly upbeat.
A burst of optimism also followed the recent agreement that led to Vajpayee meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. But their two nations are still not in agreement over who should begin the talks set for next month. Pakistan wants foreign ministers to start the negotiations; India wants only lower-level bureaucrats at the table in the opening round.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Musharraf stressed that he would seek to help resolve the long-standing dispute, Associated Press reported.
"I strongly believe that we must not live perpetually in enmity," he said.
In Pakistan, which controls roughly one-third of Kashmir, members of the All Party Hurriyat Conference -- the main umbrella group for the Kashmiri separatist organizations -- are deeply skeptical of the talks in India and suspect they are a tactic to further split the alliance. Pakistan's government backs hard-line member Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
"Unless human rights abuses are stopped by Indian forces in Kashmir, these talks will not lead to any positive result," Farooq Rehmani of the Hurriyat's Pakistan chapter said in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
The five Kashmiri leaders who took part in Thursday's talks are from non-militant organizations within Hurriyat, a deeply divided coalition of about two dozen religious and political groups.
Their leverage is limited over the radical militants, most of them fueled by Islamic extremism, who are waging what India calls a terrorist war. Several militant groups threatened to retaliate against anyone who took part in the talks.
In late 2002, the Indian government held the fairest elections in its portion of Kashmir since the separatist insurgency began in 1989, sparked largely by anger over a fraudulent election. The new chief minister of Indian Kashmir, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, formed a coalition government based on the promise of "a healing touch" that he said would include the release of political prisoners and curbs on security forces.
One of his main targets for reform was the police Special Operations Group, a paramilitary force that Kashmiris accuse of kidnappings, torture and murder.
"Nothing has been done. No action has been taken against the abuses by this Special Operations Group," Rehmani said, adding that innocent civilians continued to disappear at the hands of the Indian security forces.
He said it would take at least six months for Kashmiris to assess whether India's government had taken the necessary steps, such as releasing large numbers of political prisoners and returning security forces to barracks, to make peace possible.
Rehmani said that while it talks with the Hurriyat faction, New Delhi should also try to build confidence in the process and not simply try to isolate other members of the alliance.
Two important steps would be to open a bus route between Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-held Kashmir, and Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani-controlled portion, and to make sure people can easily obtain visas to travel the route, Rehmani said.
He said militants, who India claims are supported by Pakistan, might agree to a cease-fire if New Delhi curbed human rights abuses, withdrew several hundred thousand soldiers patrolling the territory and stopped holding prisoners without trial.
Choudhury reported from New Delhi and Watson from Islamabad.