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New year hope for India and Pakistan

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- - The new year has brought a glimmer of hope for a break in the stand off between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the nation in a New Year message India was ready to open talks with Pakistan if its neighbour and rival abandoned an "anti-India mentality."

"Shed your anti-India mentality and take effective steps to stop cross-border terrorism, and you will find India willing to walk more than half the distance to work closely with Pakistan to resolve, through dialogue, any issue, including the contentious issue of Jammu and Kashmir," he wrote in the message.

India's foreign minister Monday called Pakistan's arrests of Islamic militant leaders a "step in the correct direction."

CNN's Ash-har Quraishi reports the Indian government has suspended operation of the only train connecting India and Pakistan (December 31)

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In-Depth: Kashmir -- Where conflict rules 

Timeline: Conflict over Kashmir  
Vijay Dutt, a London-based journalist with the Hindustan Times, has India's perspective
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Shahed Sadullah, a journalist with the Daily Jang, has Pakistan's viewpoint
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Tensions have been on the rise between the two nations since the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament that left 14 people dead, including five attackers. India blames the attack on two Pakistani-based Islamic militant groups. Both countries have been massing troops and equipment along their border.

On Sunday, Pakistani authorities arrested Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, leader of Lashkar e-Tayyiba, or Army of the Righteous -- one of the groups India accuses of taking part in the attack, government sources said. They said Saeed was arrested on charges of making inflammatory speeches and inciting people to violence.

Pakistan arrested Maulana Azhar Massood, leader of the second group, Jaish-e-Mohammed -- or Army of Mohammed, last week and froze the assets of both organizations. The groups have denied responsibility for the December 13 attack.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry on Monday called the arrests of the militant leaders, along with those of about 30 more militants overnight in Karachi, part of the government's ongoing efforts to fight terrorism. The ministry said there is no link between between the arrests and heightened tensions between the nuclear neighbors.

Whatever the motive, Pakistan's moves appeared to strike a positive, if cautious, chord with New Delhi. India's foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, called the reports "a step forward in the correct direction" if confirmed.

"We hope that such actions against terrorist activities targeting India, including Jammu and Kashmir, would be pursued vigorously until cross-border terrorism in our country is completely eliminated," Singh said.

In a possible sign that the arrests are improving diplomacy between the two countries, Singh plans to go to this week's South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Nepal a day earlier than originally planned.

Singh's itinerary calls for him to arrive Wednesday. The extra day might allow him to meet with Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar on the sidelines of the regional meeting.

Bush sees 'good sign'

U.S. President Bush also welcomed the developments, calling them a "good sign." Bush told reporters that Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was "cracking down hard" on militants.

Speaking to reporters in Crawford, Texas, Bush said he hoped the two countries were not "heading for war."

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will visit Pakistan and India, a Pakistani newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Blair was expected to arrive in Pakistan on January 7 following visits to India and Bangladesh "as part of his regional tour to de-escalate the war-like situation between Pakistan and India," The News newspaper said, citing an unidentified official.

Heightened tensions between the two countries prompted New Delhi police to increase patrols and close major streets as fireworks were shot off and other celebrations took place throughout the capital.

Tension remains high along the Line of Control in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir as Pakistani and Indian troops engaged in the first sustained exchange of fire in more than a week.

Two Indian army personnel died and six were wounded in overnight mortar attacks, Indian defense officials said Monday.

The defense officials said the deaths and injuries came along the Line of Control in the Pallanwalla, Naushera and Poonch sectors of Kashmir during an extended exchange of mortar and arms fire between Indian and Pakistani troops on the border.

An 8-year-old boy sustained serious wounds overnight Sunday in Pakistani-ruled Kashmir after three hours of cross-border gunfire, according to the Pakistani Army.

Elsewhere, at least 11 people died in clashes between Indian troops and Kashmiri militants, Indian defense officials said.

In Shopin, eight militants and one soldier died in what was called an exchange between militants and Indian troops. Indian officials said three of the dead were "foreigners," meaning non-Indian, and were said to be members of Jaish-e-Mohammed.

In Kupwara, one Kashmiri militant and one Indian soldier died when militants stormed another army transit camp with hand grenades and arms fire.

CNN Correspondents Michael Holmes and Tom Mintier contributed to this report.


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