ISLAMABAD Kashmiri politicians opposed a Pakistani plan on Monday they say is aimed at integrating the strategic but disputed Northern Areas into Pakistan, arguing it will undermine their case for independence from India.
The Northern Areas of Gilgit and Baltistan were bundled in with Kashmir and demarcated as disputed territory under U.N. resolutions passed after Pakistan and India fought the first of their three wars in 1948.
Bordering China on one side and the mainly Buddhist Indian region of Ladakh on the other, Pakistan's sparsely populated Northern Areas are known to mountaineers as the home of many of the world's highest peaks.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India fought a brief but intense border conflict in the Kargil sector of this region in 1999.
Although Pakistan has held the northern territories since the first war with India, their status was hitherto undefined as Pakistan had not wanted to compromise its case in the broader dispute over Kashmir.
On Saturday, Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani unveiled a reform package that would result in these areas having their own governor and chief minister.
The areas have also been renamed as Gilgit-Baltistan.
Amanullah Khan, leader of the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, rejected the package, saying it appeared to be aimed at merging the disputed areas into Pakistan.
"We strongly condemn this package. It will harm the interests of Pakistan as well as Kashmiris," he told Reuters.
"It looks like they are integrating these areas into Pakistan as done by India."
Sardar Atiqque Ahmed Khan, a pro-Pakistan politician and a former prime minister of Pakistan-ruled Kashmir, also expressed reservations about the package.
"We support internal autonomy for these areas ... but such moves to unilaterally alter the status of these areas and gradually give them the status of a province are suspicious and unacceptable," he said.
The roughly 1.5 million people of Gilgit and Baltistan largely oppose integration into Kashmir and demand the territory be merged into Pakistan and declared a separate province.
Officials in the past had stonewalled on this demand because it would have diluted Pakistan's demand for implementation of a U.N.-mandated plebiscite to allow the people of Kashmir to determine their own future.
Pakistani Kashmir, known as Azad Kashmir, enjoys some sort of self-rule with its own government, parliament and flag, but the Northern Areas are directly ruled by Islamabad.
India holds about 45 percent of Kashmir and Pakistan more than a third. China controls the remainder.
Analysts say the reform package appears to be aimed at striking a balance between giving some sort of internal autonomy to the Northern Areas without undermining Pakistan's position on the Kashmir dispute.
"They have met the demands of people of the Northern Areas on a limited scale," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst.
"It's a mid-way house. They will give them some concessions and then will wait and see what happens to the Kashmir issue."
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Paul Tait)