Nine moderate separatist leaders arrived on Friday on a recently inaugurated cross-Kashmir bus service, seeking to push both sides to settle the Kashmir dispute - cause of two of the countries' three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.


But in Indian Kashmir, a municipal councillor belonging to a pro-Indian political party was gunned down in the latest in a string of political killings.


On Thursday, as the separatist group reached Chakothi, about 60km south of Muzaffarabad, they got off the bus on the Indian side and walked over the Friendship Bridge to the Pakistan side, where they were greeted by Sardar Sikandar Hayat, prime minister of Pakistani Kashmir.


"We have come from one part (of Kashmir) to the other. This is our own homeland," Umar Farooq, a leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference alliance, said.


He was crowded by well-wishers and wore a welcome garland of flowers around his neck.


Slogans raised


Hundreds of people watched from the road or rooftops, chanting, "Welcome! Welcome!" Some shouted slogans for Kashmir's independence, others for its merger with Pakistan.


Later, the Kashmiri leaders used a joint news conference to urge Pakistan and India to include representatives of Kashmir in talks on the lingering issue of the disputed territory.


Farooq and the other eight leaders said they supported the peace process between the two neighbours, and urged all Kashmiris to unite. "Our unity will be our strength," he said.


Leaders from Indian Kashmir
were welcomed with garlands

After a two-day stay in Muzaffarabad, the leaders - mostly from the Hurriyat - will travel to Islamabad to meet with President General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.


They will later go to the eastern city of Lahore.


For years, India had opposed the Hurriyat leaders' visiting Pakistan. But after Islamabad last month invited them, New Delhi agreed to let them travel and issued them passports - a sign of easing tensions since India and Pakistan started peace talks a year and a half ago.


Hundreds of supporters cheered the nine as they departed on the bus earlier Thursday from Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, bound for Muzzafarabad, the capital of the Pakistani portion.


Councillor killed


Suspected Muslim rebels on Friday assassinated a municipal councillor of the main opposition National Conference in the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, police said.


Mohammed Ashraf was killed in a residential street of Srinagar. "Militants pumped bullets into his body. He was rushed to hospital but died on the way," the spokesman said.


Ashraf was slain as he was headed towards his municipal council office.


Municipal elections were held early this year in Indian Kashmir after a gap of nearly three decades that was partly due to restive conditions in the state.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between predominantly Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan. Both countries claim the region in its entirety.


India has long accused Pakistan of giving military support to the rebels fighting for the region's independence or merger with Pakistan - an allegation that Pakistan denies, saying it gives only diplomatic and political backing.


The conflict has left more than 66,000 people dead, mostly civilians.