Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee gave peace efforts in Kashmir a major boost Wednesday by extending a month-long unilateral ceasefire in the strife-torn region by another month.
In a statement to the lower house of parliament, Vajpayee cited a decrease in "terrorist" violence and in the infiltration of militants across the disputed Kashmir border with Pakistan.
"After careful consideration of all aspects, the government has taken a decision to extend the period of no-initiation of combat operations by another month," Vajpayee said.
A further review of the ceasefire will be taken after Republic Day on January 26, 2001, he added.
Following a prime ministerial directive, Indian security forces suspended operations against Muslim militant groups in Kashmir on midnight November 27 for the holy Islamic month of Ramadan.
Vajpayee told parliament his government had been "greatly heartened" by the response of citizens, political parties and other organisations in Kashmir to the ceasefire initiative.
"There has also been a decline in incidents of terrorist violence in that state," he said.
However, he added some hardline Pakistan-based militant groups like the Lashker-e-Toiba had continued to cause the "unfortunate and regrettable" loss of life of innocent civilians and security personnel.
"The government remains firm in its resolve to combatting these and other challenges, also to defeating their inhuman and nefarious designs."
He also highlighted a "significant decline" in militant attempts to cross the Line of Control (LoC) -- the de facto border dividing Indian- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
"This must cease entirely," he added.
The current ceasefire is the first to have been offered by New Delhi in Indian Kashmir since the outbreak in 1989 of a Muslim separatist insurgency that has claimed 34,000 lives.
Vajpayee's statement, which implicitly recognizes a Pakistani role in reducing the level of violence and cross-border infiltration, will boost hopes of concrete peace talks.
The three main parties to the Kashmir dispute -- India, Pakistan and the Kashmir separatists -- have in the past all voiced their willingness to begin talks, but problems remain over the modalities.
Vajpayee had said on Tuesday that India was willing to sit down with Pakistan "once the situation improves" in Kashmir.
Islamabad reacted cautiously to Vajapyee's extension of the ceasefire.
"We have to see this statement because usually the Indian statements have all kinds of conditionalities attached," said Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan.
Pakistan responded to the November 27 ceasefire with a promise to show "maximum restraint" along the LoC.
It has also called for India to allow Kashmiri leaders from its side of the divided state to visit Islamabad for discussions on how to arrange a formal three-way dialogue.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars and a border conflict over Kashmir, which was split between them in 1947.
"The extension of the ceasefire is part of a process to create the right ambience for talks, with the government hinting that we should give it more time," said C. Uday Bhaskar, deputy director at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
"But I would be a little cautious about saying whether the talks at this stage could include Pakistan," Uday Bhaskar said.
The main opposition Congress party welcomed the ceasefire extension, with spokesman Pranab Mukherjee saying he hoped the move would be "taken to its logical conclusion so that peace returns to the Kashmir Valley." -- NEW DELHI (AFP)
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