//India reduces Kashmir troop levels slightly

India reduces Kashmir troop levels slightly

Mon Feb 6, 2006 11:47 PM IST163, By Kamil Zaheer and Palash Kumar, NEW DELHI (Reuters) –

India has withdrawn at least 3,000 troops from Jammu and Kashmir state as the level of violence in the insurgency racked region has fallen, the country’s defence minister and army chief said on Monday.

Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee described the movement of troops as a regular redeployment, saying it only involved a brigade, although earlier government and military officials said a total of 15,000 troops would be withdrawn in phases.

Given India has an estimated half million troops in the Himalayan region, many of them fighting Islamic militants opposed to New Delhi’s rule, the numbers being pulled out are small.

India had rejected past suggestions from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for a reduction in troop levels in Kashmir, but Indian analysts said New Delhi’s move could be seen as a gesture to help along a flagging two-year-old peace process.

"It is a routine exercise and, of course, the decision has been taken in view of the fact that the level of violence has come down," Mukherjee told journalists.

He said the brigade — at least 3,000 troops according to army officials — was being redeployed to north-east India.

New Delhi had earlier rebuffed Musharraf’s suggestions that it should cut troop levels in Kashmir, arguing that any demilitarisation would be a decision for India.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said her government had no confirmation of India’s troop movements.

"The president… and the prime minister of Pakistan have repeatedly proposed that we should demilitarise the Jammu and Kashmir region, and if this part of a significant reduction of the Indian presence in the IOK (Indian-occupied Kashmir) we would then welcome it," Aslam said.

Analysts said the troop reduction, although small, would be seen as a gesture towards the peace process.

"While we did not want to be seen as being nudged by Pakistan, India was coming around to this," Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, said.

"This step was the result of the convergence of Pakistani demands and India’s internal security assessment."

India’s Chief of Army Staff General J.J. Singh said the brigade had already left Kashmir and had returned to their bases in Darjeeling and Siliguri, in the eastern state of West Bengal.

Singh said the redeployment would help to bolster reserves in India’s northeastern region, where troops are battling a number of separatist insurgencies.

Further withdrawals from Kashmir could be considered, but there was no definite plan to pull more troops out, he said.

While the two countries have strengthened transport, cultural and sporting links since starting the peace process, they have made little headway on tackling the dispute over Kashmir, the cause of two of their three wars since independence from British rule in 1947.

Indian officials say violence has declined in Kashmir. But they want Islamabad to do more to fully stop militants crossing into Indian Kashmir.

Islamabad says it is doing all, and has instead asked New Delhi to begin talks to resolve the territory’s future.

(With additional reporting by Raja Asghar in Islamabad)