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India lawmakers meet detained Kashmir separatists

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indian lawmakers met detained Kashmiri separatists on Monday, despite a rebel boycott of government-sponsored talks to end the biggest independence uprising in Kashmir in over 20 years, but no breakthrough was expected.

Among the separatists were Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has emerged as the leading face of the anti-India demonstrations and who is seen as a hardliner by the government, and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the head of All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference.

The politicians were sent to the region by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been accused of not taking seriously enough the protests that exploded in Kashmir this summer, causing more than 100 deaths.

Nearly all the victims have been killed by police bullets, heightening anger against New Delhi.

“We don’t want to live in a constant state of fear and state terrorism, Kashmir is an international dispute and it has to be addressed according to the wishes of the people,” Farooq told the visitors, displaying photographs of young boys killed by police.

Geelani and Farooq, like other separatist leaders, had refused to meet the delegation, prompting a few of the Indian politicians to visit them at their homes. Both were placed under house arrest this morning by the police.

There was no meeting of minds between the two sides.

Geelani spurned New Delhi’s offers of economic assistance for the state, saying “we want independence,” while Indian communist lawmaker Gurudas Dasgupta told Farooq: “We do not agree with the Hurriyat demand for azadi (freedom). You must help in restoring the peace.”

Since the first death in June, Kashmir has been thrown out of gear by strikes and curfews. Schools, colleges and businesses remain shut. Food and medicine are scarce.

As New Delhi’s representatives landed this morning in the summer capital Srinagar, authorities enforced a strict curfew across the region.

Heavily armed security forces patrolled deserted streets and loudspeakers mounted on police vehicles asked residents to stay indoors in a bid to head off more protests, witnesses said.

Seven people were injured when police fired at stone-pelting protesters in north Kashmir, police said.

Pro-India politicians in the Muslim-majority region asked the delegation for political concessions, including autonomy for the region and for the repeal of a widely hated law that gives security forces immunity in cases of civilian deaths.

The ruling National Conference and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party accept Indian rule in Kashmir.

Prime Minister Singh has been accused of not taking the protests seriously even as a new generation of Kashmiri youth erupts in anger at living in one of the world’s most militarised regions.

Militant attacks, which first broke out in 1989, have declined considerably, but street protests have grown.

While a previous generation of Kashmiris often embraced militancy, a new generation has used street protests, Facebook and mobile phones to spread revolt, mindful of how violence and an army backlash led to more than 47,000 deaths after 1989.

“Boys pushed to the brink may pick up guns again. The generation which grew up amidst a bloody conflict is capable of prolonging the conflict for many more decades to come,” Firdous Syed wrote in his Greater Kashmir newspaper’s online edition.

Writing by C.J. Kuncheria, editing by Tim Pearce