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Kashmiris Feel Voiceless Amid Buzz

May 25, 2002

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SRINAGAR, India (AP) _ From the White House to the Kremlin, telephones are ringing as world leaders work to avert another war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

But standing by his fruit cart on a tree-lined road in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, Abdul Ghani feels voiceless in the global discussion about his homeland.

``Kashmir belongs to Kashmiris. If they talk and don’t ask the Kashmiris what they want, what is the purpose?″ said Ghani, 50, selling mangoes and melons under a maple tree Friday.

Ghani had brought his cart to his favorite spot as people and traffic returned to the roads of the Himalayan region after a three-day strike to protest the slaying of a Kashmiri separatist leader and a visit by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Vajpayee spent three days in Kashmir, visiting soldiers at the disputed border with Pakistan and meeting politicians at a hilltop mansion formerly used by Kashmir’s queen.

Kashmir residents pointed out that Vajpayee, who leads a Hindu nationalist party, made little effort to meet the people during his visit to India’s only Muslim-majority state.

India accuses Pakistan of waging a 12-year proxy war by promoting Pakistan-based Islamic militants fighting for Indian-controlled Kashmir’s independence or its merger with Muslim Pakistan. At least 60,000 people have been killed in the insurgency. Pakistan denies training and arming the rebels.

India and Pakistan have massed about 1 million troops along their frontier. Tension escalated last week after militants raided an army camp in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, killing 34 people.

In the past week, cross-border shelling has killed dozens in Kashmir, which was divided when India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947 and is claimed by both.

During his visit, Vajpayee threatened a ``decisive victory″ and asked Indian soldiers on the border to be ready for sacrifice. The prospect of another war, which would be the third over Kashmir, terrifies its residents.

``During a war life becomes hell. One is at the mercy of strangers (soldiers) even in one’s own village. We have seen it before,″ said Mohammad Rafi, who comes from Uri, a frontier town in northern Kashmir.

Mohammad Asar, an apricot farmer, had similar memories of an 11-week border conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999, the closest they have come to war since 1971.

``During the last war our children had to spend weeks stuck inside makeshift bunkers, often going without food and water for many hours. How can we make them forget that horror?″ said Asar.

Both countries now have nuclear weapons, making the prospect of a new war a worldwide concern. Tough talk and threatening gestures by both sides have been followed by frantic international diplomacy.

Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf twice Thursday and consulted with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw about India and Pakistan. Straw is due in the region next week; Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, is due to head for the area June 4.

European Union Commissioner Chris Patten was in New Delhi on Friday to urge restraint by the nuclear-armed neighbors. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a phone conversation Thursday, agreed on the urgent need for an international consensus to defuse tension between India and Pakistan.

In Srinagar, there is skepticism about the faraway diplomatic forays.

``Kashmir has no voice in this process. Kashmiris are feeling left out,″ said Javed Ahmed Butt, 39, an English-speaking college graduate who drives a taxi because he can’t find other work.

``Except Bapu, no politician has ever given us anything,″ Butt said, referring to India’s independence leader, Mohandas Gandhi, called ``Bapu″ _ ``father″ in Hindi.

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