India's ruling Hindu nationalist party has held its first ever election rally in the insurgency-torn Kashmir Valley with a call on Kashmiri independence fighters to give up their guns or be killed.
About 1000 people turned out in the Muslim-majority summer capital Srinagar for the tightly guarded rally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose support in Kashmir has been mostly confined to the Hindu-dominated Jammu area.
"Every militant will be killed like Gazi Baba," BJP president Venkaiah Naidu told the rally, referring to a top Kashmiri fighter killed by Indian troops in an August gunbattle in Srinagar.
Police said Baba masterminded a December 2001 raid on the Indian parliament that killed 15 people including the five assailants and sent tensions soaring with Pakistan, which India said supported the attack.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on an April visit in Srinagar announced a drive to normalise ties with Pakistan, which also controls part of Kashmir. The two countries announced on Wednesday they would open talks on Kashmir in May or June.
The BJP is banking on the peace drive and on booming economic growth to win early elections expected by April.
"Leave guns. We are ready to talk," Naidu said.
"We are talking to Pakistan. We are talking to Hurriyat. We will talk to anyone who renounces violence," he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, a top election strategist of the BJP, on 22 January held breakthrough talks with five members of Kashmir's now-divided main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
"We are talking to Pakistan. We are talking to Hurriyat. We will talk to anyone who renounces violence"
Naidu said foreigners had taken control of the 15-year insurgency against Indian rule and urged Kashmiris to vote for the BJP.
"Terrorism will take you nowhere. The ballot is more powerful than the bullet," he told the rally, which was also attended by BJP general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, one of the most prominent Muslims in the party.
Police imposed tight security across Srinagar for the rally, with dogs sniffing a nearby road to search for explosives.