Seventeen Killed In Raging
Gunbattles Across Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Violence flared in the disputed Kashmir region, at the core of a fight between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, with 17 people, including 15 rebels, killed in separate gunbattles, officials said on Friday.

The number of deaths in a 24-hour period was the highest since last Sunday when 21 people were killed in Indian Kashmir where a separatist revolt has raged for nearly 13 years.

The latest killings came as Defense Minister George Fernandes told a news conference in Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, that "there are 3,000 militants still active in the state and efforts would be taken effectively to neutralize them."

Tensions have eased between India and Pakistan that have been locked in a border standoff since an attack on the Indian parliament in December which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based guerrillas.

India, however, is insisting that Pakistan honor a pledge to stop militant infiltration into Indian territory before it pulls back its troops from the border.

"Dialogue with Pakistan is not possible until infiltration is permanently stopped. This untraced infiltration can be there," Fernandes told reporters in Jammu.

A police spokesman said three members of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen militant group were killed near the Pakistan border in Hafrada forests of Kupwara district 54 miles northwest of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.

Earlier in an overnight gunbattle between army and separatist guerrillas three militants of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen group were killed in the neighboring district of Baramulla, police said.

Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Kashmir's frontline militant group is fighting for region's merger with neighboring Pakistan.

An army official and two separatist guerrillas were killed in another gunbattle in Baramulla district on Thursday evening, police said.

They said two soldiers were also injured in the armed encounter.

Suspected rebels on Friday morning shot dead a senior activist of Kashmir's ruling National Conference party in north Kashmir.

Elsewhere Indian soldiers shot dead seven militants in separate shootouts across the strife-torn region.

India, which has massed its army on the Pakistan border, accuses Islamabad of training and arming Muslim militants and pushing them into Indian Kashmir to fight New Delhi's rule.

Pakistan denies the charge but President Pervez Musharraf has vowed to stop militant incursions across a cease-fire line dividing the disputed Himalayan region.

Fernandes said on Thursday infiltration of militants from Pakistan into Indian Kashmir had nearly ended but troops would remain on the border as long as needed.

About a dozen rebel groups are battling Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir, the country's only Muslim-majority state where officials say more than 33,000 people have been killed since a rebellion broke out in 1989. Separatists put the toll near 80,000.

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