The guns of the Indian security forces in Kashmir fell silent Tuesday as New Delhi launched an historic cease-fire initiative aimed at resolving the region's bloody 11-year insurgency.
As of midnight Monday, Indian army and paramilitary forces ceased all operations against Muslim militant groups in Kashmir.
The cease-fire, announced by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on November 19, will remain in force throughout the holy Islamic month of Ramadan.
The heavy Indian artillery batteries along the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Indian and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir were also silenced, although army officials said operations to prevent any intrusion across the disputed border would continue.
"There has been no militant-related violence since last night," said a senior official at the central police control room in the Kashmir summer capital Srinagar.
Kashmir police chief Gurbachan Jagat stressed that the security forces were not expected to behave like sitting ducks during the cease-fire.
"If attacked, we will retaliate in self-defense," Jagat said.
This is the first time the Indian government has implemented a unilateral cease-fire in Muslim-majority Kashmir since the launch in 1989 of the separatist insurgency that has claimed some 34,000 lives.
Hardline Pakistan-based militant groups have rejected the initiative as a propaganda ploy and stepped up attacks on military and civilian targets following Vajpayee's declaration.
Ten Sikhs and Hindus have been gunned down in two separate incidents in the last week.
In the past, militant-initiated cease-fires in Kashmir have heralded sustained phases of violence by hardline separatist groups opposed to any deals with New Delhi.
The region's last cease-fire -- offered by the dominant Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen in July -- lasted just two weeks before collapsing when India refused to allow Pakistan to participate in peace talks.
During the Hizbul cease-fire, hardline groups opposed to the peace process massacred nearly 100 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims and migrant workers.
India hopes that indigenous Kashmiri militant groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen will respond positively to the ceasefire and help isolate the hardline Pakistan-based outfits.
New Delhi is also keen to involve the region's main separatist alliance, the All Party Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference -- an amalgam of around 24 separatist political parties.
The Hurriyat leadership has given a guarded welcome to the cease-fire, but warned that India must drop its bar on Pakistani involvement in any peace dialogue.
"Talking peace may seem to be pleasing but purchasing peace requires a bold initiative," said Hurriyat chairman Abdul Gani Bhat.
"If we really want peace, we will have to resolve disputes. No peace can happen in a vacuum."
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir.
Police said measures had been taken to ensure the safety of Kashmir's non-Muslim minorities during Ramadan.
"Troops have been deployed in strength in minority villagers to prevent any attack," said Munir Khan, senior superintendent of police in southern Kashmir.
Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah said the cease-fire could be extended.
"This is the first step from the prime minister and I hope that this peace will not be for just one month, but forever," Abdullah said -- SRINAGAR (AFP)
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