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The freeing of alleged Sikh militants has cleared a barrier in the way of Rajiv Gandhi's bid to end separatist violence in Punjab. It could boost his election chances, analysts here say. More than 100 Sikhs held since mid-1984 were released earlier this week - a move that marks the first step to solving the Punjab problem, says opposition leader Lal Kishan Advani. ``If he [Gandhi] solves it, he can win the elections. But it is a big `if,''' Mr. Advani says.

Prime Minister Gandhi must tread a narrow line between offering concessions to the Sikhs to wean them from militancy and not appearing politically weak to India's Hindu majority, political analysts say.

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The elections, due by year's end, are expected to be a close competition between Gandhi's Congress (I) party and a newly formed seven-party alliance.

Gandhi has also agreed to withdraw special powers given to security forces to search, arrest, and detain suspected extremists. A special committee will reportedly rule on who should be released among more than 3,000 Sikh youths held by security forces. A danger is that some freed prisoners might join the extremists and step up violence, sources say.

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