updated 12/5/2006 6:28:01 PM ET 2006-12-05T23:28:01

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Tuesday that Pakistan is willing to give up its claim to Kashmir if India reciprocates and agrees to self-governance in the disputed Himalayan region that they have fought over for decades.

The comments, in an interview aired by India’s NDTV network, were among Musharraf’s strongest yet to encourage a settlement in the bitter, 58-year dispute since the South Asian rivals began peace talks nearly three years ago.

There was no immediate reaction from India’s government, and Musharraf’s spokesman accused NDTV of “twisting” the president’s comments to suggest that Pakistan was making a unilateral offer to give up its claim to Kashmir.

The Islamic state of Pakistan and majority-Hindu India both control parts of Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region in the Himalayan mountains, which was divided between them during partition of the subcontinent on independence from Britain in 1947. They have since fought two of their three wars over it — the first in 1948.

In his interview, Musharraf was asked if Pakistan was willing to give up its claim to Kashmir if India also agreed to self-governance in its part of the divided region. He replied, “Yes, we will have to if this solution comes up.”

In Islamabad, Musharraf’s spokesman stressed such an offer was dependent on India altering its stated position that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

“The president at no point said that Pakistan is unilaterally ready to give up its stance on Kashmir,” Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said.

New claim, similar proposals
While the willingness to give up Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir appeared new, Musharraf was reiterating previous proposals, including troop withdrawals and greater autonomy for Kashmir, that have elicited little response from India.

“It’s more or less restating his previous position that ‘Let’s get talking about self-governance and demilitarization.’ But he’s showing more flexibility,” Talat Masood, a former Pakistani general and political analyst, said of Tuesday’s interview.

Musharraf said that neither Pakistan nor India wanted full independence for Kashmir. He suggested greater autonomy for the region under “joint management” by Pakistan, India and Kashmiris.

The peace process began in early 2004, easing tensions but failing to achieve a breakthrough to bury the threat of fresh conflict between South Asia’s nuclear powers.

Talks were temporarily suspended by New Delhi after train bombings in Mumbai killed more than 200 people last July, and only restarted last month. In a sign of the continuing suspicion between the two countries, India claims Pakistan’s intelligence agency played a role in the bombings, a charge Islamabad denies.

Analysts in India said Musharraf’s comments were likely directed at militants in Kashmir, indicating they can no longer count on Pakistan’s support for an independent Kashmir.

Pakistan accused of supporting insurgency
New Delhi accuses Islamabad of supporting an Islamic insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir that has killed 68,000 people since 1989. Pakistan says it only gives the militants diplomatic and moral support.

Musharraf’s “rejection of independence for Kashmir should lay to rest any hopes militant groups in Kashmir may be cherishing for an independent Kashmir,” said C. Uday Bhaskar of the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

The president’s comments will likely draw opposition from Islamic hard-liners in Pakistan, but analysts say there is widespread public support in both countries for a resolution to the Kashmir dispute.

Masood said Musharraf has been raising the Kashmir issue with increasing frequency, and his comments could be intended to pressure India to move toward a resolution ahead of a visit to Pakistan in January by its External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. India’s prime minister is also expected to visit Pakistan early next year.

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