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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The State Department seized on the holding of state elections in India-controlled Kashmir to call on India and Pakistan to negotiate a settlement for the troubled region.

Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday the voting showed the Kashmiri people want to pursue a path of peace. And he praised Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for his commitment to open elections, saying it was a critical factor.

Also, the State Department commended the Indian Elections Commission and ``the courage of the candidates and the voters who chose to participate despite violence and intimidation.''

Boucher also told Indian authorities the State Department considered it important they follow through with promises to investigate reports of coercion by security forces.

But now that elections have been held in Jammu and Kashmir, ``we call on both India and Pakistan to make a strenuous effort towards an early resumption of diplomatic dialogue on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir,'' Boucher said.

A lasting settlement must reflect the needs of the Kashmir people, the spokesman said.

Final returns Thursday assured a coalition among parties opposed to negotiating with Pakistan while cross-border terror continues.

The population of the disputed Kashmir territory is predominantly Muslim. Since 1989, Islamic militants and terrorists have fought to wrest the Muslim-majority region from Hindu-majority India.