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Pakistan calls for peace talks

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan marked India's Republic Day on Saturday with a call for talks to end a tense military standoff, a day after New Delhi test-fired a nuclear-capable missile.

In a message to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Pakistani military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf said he wanted the two nuclear rivals to be good neighbors.

"I would like to reiterate our readiness to engage in a serious and sustained dialogue with India to commence together a journey of peace and progress," he said in a message issued by state APP news agency.

"Pakistan desires to establish tension-free and good neighborly relations with India."

The offer came after Pakistan said the timing of Friday's missile test by India was "prejudicial" to efforts to shore up security in South Asia, home to a fifth of the world's people.

The two sides have massed a million men along their border and imposed tit-for-tat diplomatic and aviation sanctions in a row sparked by a Dec. 13 suicide raid on India's parliament.

Indian and Pakistani troops traded heavy mortar and machine-gun fire across their border in the disputed Kashmir region on Saturday, an Indian defense spokesman said.

India blames the attack on its parliament on Pakistan-based Islamic militants fighting its rule in Himalayan Kashmir.

It wants Islamabad to crush them and surrender 20 alleged criminals and terrorists, saying there can be no military withdrawal until this happens.

The dispute has stoked fears of war between the two countries, who have fought three wars since independence in 1947 and conducted nuclear tests in 1998.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Tommy Franks, said after meeting Musharraf in Islamabad that he hoped India and Pakistan would resolve their crisis through diplomacy.

Asked at a news conference how near he thought the two were to war, he said: "Hopefully, not close. . . . What we see now is a crisis situation between two of our friends. . . . I'm hopeful that this crisis will be defused."

The Indian defense spokesman said the fighting in Kashmir happened in Akhnoor sector, 20 miles northwest of Jammu.

Indian and Pakistani troops have traded almost daily mortar and small arms fire in the restive Himalayan state since the crisis began.

Police also said a state-owned television transmitter was bombed in Kashmir, but no one was hurt.

While troops and heavy weapons were absent from New Delhi's Republic Day parade for the first time, it did include a prototype of the Agni II missile, a shorter-range version of which was tested on Friday.

Analysts said the testing was meant as a warning to its neighbour and a message of defiance to the world.

It drew international criticism and nuclear powers Britain and France said the message it sent was the wrong one.

"It is not the happiest signal in the present regional context," a French foreign ministry spokesman said.

On Republic Day last year, an earthquake devastated the western state of Gujarat, killing more than 20,000 people.