MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Pakistan-based commander of the biggest Kashmiri guerrilla group derided on Monday a peace process between Pakistan and India and vowed to continue a “holy war” against India.
Relations between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars since independence 60 years ago, have improved considerably since they launched a peace process in early 2004.
But Syed Salahuddin, the supreme commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen group, said the Kashmir dispute, which lies at the heart of rivalry between the neighbors, had never been treated as a “core issue” in peace talks.
“We are peace-loving people but we cannot promote a peace process at the cost of our martyrs,” Salahuddin, who is also head of a militant alliance, told a rally in Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistani part of divided Kashmir.
The rally by the militants, attended by about 1,000 people, was the first in many years and was held just few weeks after a new government took power in Pakistan.
Salahuddin’s comments came a month before Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee was due in Islamabad for a review of the peace process.
More than 42,000 people have been killed since a revolt against Indian rule erupted in Indian Kashmir in 1989, according to Indian figures. Human rights groups put the toll at 60,000.
However, the level of violence has fallen since the peace process was launched, although no significant progress has been made on the Kashmir dispute. Both Pakistan and India claim Muslim-majority region in full but rule parts of it.
Salahuddin said militants would continue jihad, or Muslim holy war, until Kashmir was “free” of Indian rule.
“We want to convey a message to the … political and religious leadership in Pakistan and at the same time to the Indian rulers that until every single inch of Kashmir is freed from New Delhi’s slavery, our struggle will continue with full force,” he said.
Pakistan supported the guerrillas fighting Indian rule in Kashmir during the 1990s, but after the September 11 attacks on the United States, President Pervez Musharraf took steps to rein in the militants.
Pakistan’s new government has said it aims to continue the peace process with India.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi referred on Monday to the talks with India as “a step in the right direction”.
Speaking at a news conference with his British counterpart, David Miliband, Qureshi said Pakistan’s “immediate threat” was not external and that stability on the border with India let the government focus more on internal security issues.