Kashmir leader vows to fight India for control

Remarks come just a day before high-profile visit by Indian officials to Pakistan.

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan // The top official in Pakistan-held Kashmir vowed to fight India for control of the disputed territory in a speech to thousands of people assembled by a coalition of banned militant groups. The provocative comments by the prime minister Raja Farooq Haider Khan come amid the worst unrest in years in India-held Kashmir, which like Pakistan is majority Muslim. Residents have often chafed against rule by majority Hindu India.

Mr Khan's comments also come a day before India is scheduled to make its highest level visit to Pakistan since militants linked to Pakistan killed 166 people in Mumbai in 2008. The talks are meant to reduce tension between the two countries, but Khan's comments could do the opposite. "Let me assure you that every home in Kashmir will become a bunker against India," Mr Khan told the crowd in the capital of Pakistan-held Kashmir, Muzaffarabad. "Azad Kashmir will become a base for the independence movement," he said, referring to the Urdu name of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The rally was organized by the United Jihad Council, a coalition of 12 anti-India militant groups. Many of the groups - including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India blames for the Mumbai attacks - were started with the support of the Pakistani government in the 1980s and 1990s to fight India for control of Kashmir. Pakistan banned the groups several years ago following pressure from the U.S. But many of them are allowed to operate openly, a fact that India says hampers improved relations between the two countries. India has demanded that Pakistan crack down on Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Kashmiri militant groups, but many analysts believe the government continues to view them as an effective tool to put pressure on India. The ability of thousands of members of banned militant groups to gather freely in Muzaffarabad on Tuesday was likely to reinforce that notion. "Holy war is the only solution to our problem," said Syed Salahuddin, the head of Hizbul Mujahideen, which helped organize Tuesday's rally. "It is mandatory for every child in every street to wage war against India to bring it down to its knees." Salahuddin rejected upcoming talks this week between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India, saying they "are like sprinkling salt on the wounds of the Kashmiri people." Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said he did not expect any breakthrough in the talks. "We do not expect any dramatic results," he said in a Geo TV interview. "It would be a big success if a process of engagement is agreed." India and Pakistan have fought two wars over control of Kashmir since their independence from Britain in 1947. Both countries claim the territory in its entirety. Mr Khan, the Pakistani Kashmir prime minister, said that he would like to see normal relations between the two countries but doubted Indian intentions. "India is not sincere," he said in a Dawn News TV interview. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir, where separatist politicians and armed Islamic militants reject Indian sovereignty and want to carve out a separate homeland or merge the region with Pakistan. India-held Kashmir has been rocked by protests and strikes for the past month, and at least 15 people have died mostly in shootings blamed on police and paramilitary soldiers. "Pakistan is committed to the cause of the Kashmiri people for their right of self-determination," the Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a statement. * Associated Press