| NEW DELHI
NEW DELHI India's interior minister hinted on Friday that Pakistan could be behind weeks of violent anti-India protests in the disputed Kashmir region, a move that could hurt the nuclear-armed rivals' attempts to improve ties.
This is the first time New Delhi has linked Pakistan to the violence in Kashmir that has killed nearly 50 people since June. Earlier India had said Pakistan-based militants were inciting trouble in Kashmir, a region divided between India and Pakistan and which both claim in full.
"Pakistan appears to have altered its strategy in influencing events in Jammu and Kashmir," Palaniappan Chidambaram told the Indian parliament during a debate on the protests, among the biggest since a separatist revolt against Indian rule broke out in 1989.
"It is possible that they believe that relying upon civilian unrest will pay them better dividends. But I am confident if we are able to win the hearts and minds of the people ... those designs can be foiled."
There were fresh pro-independence protests in several places in Kashmir on Friday. At least two people were wounded when police opened fire on thousands of protesters in Sopore town in north Kashmir.
The minister's comments could be seen by Islamabad as a provocation, damaging prospects for improving ties that plummeted after the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people and derailed a sluggish four-year-old peace process with Pakistan.
So far, the latest violence in Kashmir has appeared to have little impact on relations.
The two sides last held peace talks in July and those ended in acrimony over the attacks, even though the dialogue itself is seen as a tentative step toward improving ties.
Divided Kashmir remains at the heart of the dispute between India and Pakistan, with both sides claiming the Himalayan region in full. They have fought two of their three wars over it.
India accuses Pakistan of fuelling unrest in Kashmir, but Islamabad says it only lends moral support to what it calls Kashmir's independence movement which has killed tens of thousands of people.
In June, India blamed Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants for the Mumbai attacks, but Kashmiri separatists say protests by crowds of mainly Muslim youths are generally spontaneous.
LeT was founded in 1990 to fight Indian rule in Kashmir and is based in Pakistan's Punjab province.
Militant violence has fallen dramatically in recent years but popular protests have continued. In 2008, the region witnessed the biggest protests against Indian rule in two decades.
Kashmiri separatists want to carve out an independent homeland or merge with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.
(Additional reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq in Kashmir; Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Miral Fahmy)