Pakistan has invited separatists from India's disputed Kashmir region for a meeting in a move that risks further straining efforts to restart a peace dialogue between the two nuclear-armed nations.
Kashmiri separatist spokesman Ayaz Akbar said that hardline leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani is among those invited to the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi on August 23 -- the same day as talks between Pakistani National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz and his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval.
The Pakistan High Commission defended its invitation to Kashmiri separatists, saying such meetings have been held before.
"We have been meeting and talking to them. There is nothing unprecedented about it. I don't understand why there is so much hype," said Manzoor Ali Memon, a press counselor at the commission.
Besides hardline leader Geelani, Aziz will meet with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the more moderate Hurriyat Conference, before holding talks with Doval.
“Pakistani authorities want to take separatists on board before they resume talks with India,” Akbar, Geelani's spokesman said.
“There is a need for effective engagement between the two sides and involvement of people of Kashmir," Farooq said. "If it does not happen then third party mediation becomes imperative.”
Indian officials were unhappy with the move and said they would respond "appropriately."
India called off peace talks with Pakistan a year ago after its neighbor consulted the separatists before a meeting between their foreign secretaries. At the time, India accused Pakistan of interfering in its domestic affairs.
"This is deliberate attempt to irritate India," said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group in New Delhi.
Earlier Indian governments had tolerated meetings between Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected last year, signalled he would not.
Majority-Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan have fought three wars since becoming separate nations in 1947, two of them over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.
Modi has taken a tougher approach to Pakistan, and clashes on the disputed border have intensified.
Indian and Pakistani troops traded gunfire and mortar rounds along their frontier earlier this week, killing eight people and prompting India on August 16 to summon Pakistan's envoy to protest against the killings.
On August 18, another two Pakistani villagers were killed in crossfire, officials said, prompting Pakistan to summon a senior Indian diplomat to protest ceasefire violations.
The violence earlier this week prompted United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ask India and Pakistan to exercise restraint.
Hopes for warmer ties rose last month when Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, met on the sidelines of a summit in Ufa, Russia and agreed that their national security advisers would hold the talks scheduled next week.
With reporting by Reuters, dnaindia, and Hindustan Times