India on Wednesday appointed new mediators in a bid to find a solution to the decades-old Kashmir dispute, but separatist leaders vowed to press ahead with their anti-India protests.
The appointments came during a pause in massive street protests and violence that have rocked the Kashmir Valley for nearly four months. At least 110 people _ mainly young protesters and bystanders _ have been killed by government forces.
As a goodwill gesture, Indian authorities recently released nearly 50 young Kashmiris arrested during the street protests and removed more than a dozen bunkers used by security forces on the streets of Srinagar, the main city.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also sent a delegation of lawmakers to the region last month to talk to Kashmiri leaders. Some met separatist leaders in a bid to end the impasse.
On Wednesday, Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the new mediators _ journalist Dilip Padgaonkar, academician Radha Kumar and government official M.M. Ansari _ could begin talks immediately with all stakeholders, implying separatist leaders as well.
"They can move forward on the path of finding a solution to the problem. ... The interlocutors are not politicians but all of them have been in public life. We think that they are very credible people," Chidambaram told reporters in New Delhi.
Separatists dismissed the Indian government's move as "delaying tactics" and vowed to continue their protests.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a separatist leader spearheading the "Quit Kashmir" campaign against Indian rule, said New Delhi has conducted at least 150 rounds of talks with Kashmiris in the past six decades, but nothing has changed.
"India has always used dialogue as a tool to corrupt Kashmiri leadership or buy time to continue with its military occupation," Geelani said.
He said talks could only be held if India accepts certain conditions: that Kashmir is a disputed territory and not an integral part of India, as New Delhi claims; that all political prisoners should be released; that a tribunal to investigate all killings since 1989 be appointed; and that India begin withdrawing hundreds of thousands of troops from the region.
India did not immediately respond to Geelani's demands.
Since June, Indian-controlled Kashmir has been engulfed by strikes and street protests by demonstrators demanding independence or a merger with Pakistan. Businesses have lost millions of dollars and schools have been forced to shut down.
On Wednesday, authorities lifted a curfew in Srinagar and other key towns, but shops and businesses remained closed in response to a shutdown call by separatists.
Since 1989, uprisings and ensuing crackdowns by Indian security forces have left an estimated 68,000 people dead, mostly civilians, in Kashmir.