Four separatist Muslim fighters and an Indian policeman were killed in a night-long gun battle in Kashmir hours before Manmohan Singh's planned meeting with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella alliance of two dozen political separatist groups.

This will be the Indian leader's second meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders since he took power in 2004.

Lieutenant-Colonel Vijay Batra, an army spokesman, said on Wednesday that three of the fighters died during a fierce gun battle in Harwan.

"The fourth militant was shot dead during another gun battle in Bandipora town," Batra said.

"Both the operations are over," he said, adding that the identity of the dead men was being checked.

Separatist scepticism

Hurriyat comes to New Delhi this time with more than a little scepticism: They say the Indian government has been dragging its feet on promises made in the first round last September.

"Our basic thrust will be that the government of India should be serious about resolving the issue of Kashmir," Hurriyat chief Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said on the eve of Wednesday's talks.

One policeman and four Muslim
fighters were killed overnight

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is at the heart of nearly 60 years of enmity between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, and the cause of two of their three wars.

Both countries claim the region in full but rule it in parts. A separatist revolt against Indian rule in the region has killed tens of thousands of people since 1989.

Although overall violence levels have fallen since New Delhi and Islamabad have taken steps to make peace after going to the brink of another war in 2002, there has been a rise in separatist attacks in recent weeks.

Thirty-five Hindus were killed this week by Muslim fighters in India's Jammu and Kashmir, the mainly Hindu country's only Muslim-majority state.

Some Indian officials say the violence could be a response to a high voter turnout in by-elections last week in the state, and also directed at souring the mood before Wednesday's talks.

Round-table talks

Despite the background of violence, Wednesday's talks are expected to pave the way for a round-table conference with separatist groups in Srinagar on May 25.

Singh (L) last met separatist
leader Farooq in September

Farooq, who heads the six-member Hurriyat team, said the group would offer Singh suggestions for a political solution to the Kashmir problem rather than make demands.

Singh assured Hurriyat in September that if separatist violence and fighters' incursions from Pakistan ceased, he would cut troop levels in the region - with an estimated 500,000 soldiers and policemen, it is one of the most militarised regions in the world.

He also promised to review cases of people held under various anti-terrorism laws and ensure human rights were safeguarded.

The Indian government has released some prisoners and reduced the troop level by a few thousands, but the separatists have branded these as piecemeal gestures.