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20 die in Valley violence

Islamabad, May 7 (Reuters): At least 20 people were reported killed in Kashmir today as violence flared ahead of a visit by a top US official to Pakistan and India, aimed at encouraging signs of a thaw between the nuclear-armed rivals.

Pakistan authorities said seven people were killed in Indian firing in Pakistan-ruled Kashmir. Mehmood-ul-Hassan, an official in Muzaffarabad, said the deaths were caused by a mortar bomb that hit a vehicle in the Neelum Valley, about 70 km to the northeast.

Another official, who did not want to be identified, said two soldiers and a family with two young children were among those killed after “extensive” artillery, mortar and small arms fire. He said seven other people were wounded.

In Kashmir, police said two soldiers were killed and five were wounded in an ambush by militants. Elsewhere, nine rebels and two other soldiers were killed in separate gunbattles.

The violence comes just ahead of a visit to the region by US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.

Just hours before Armitage was due to land in Islamabad, India said it had hoped Pakistan would do more to end what it calls cross-border terrorism in Kashmir.

“We welcome the fact that Pakistan has responded to the initiatives of our Prime Minister. It is quite clear that several specific steps would need to be taken by Pakistan to move this process meaningfully forward,” foreign ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna said.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Zafarullah Khan Jamali, have waved olive branches since an ice-breaking phone conversation last week, the first high-level contact between the countries in more than a year.

CONFIDENCE BUILDING

Jamali invited Vajpayee to visit Islamabad while the latter responded by restoring diplomatic ties downgraded after Islamic militants attacked India's parliament in late 2001, and announcing a resumption of severed air links.

Pakistan responded in kind, saying resumption of travel links and sporting ties would be confidence-building preludes to talks.

But it has continued to insist that Kashmir be at the core of any talks, while India insists it be just one agenda subject.

Armitage was expected to arrive in Islamabad on Wednesday night and to hold talks with Pakistani leaders on Thursday, before heading to Kabul on Friday and New Delhi later that day.

He is expected to seek Pakistan's assurances that it is serious about reining in infiltration by Islamic militants into Kashmir and resurgent Taliban guerrillas threatening the fragile government in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led coalition there.

Armitage will see any progress in India-Pakistan ties as a means to ease difficulties faced by the coalition and President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.

Despite Pakistan's tag as a key ally in the U.S.-led“war on terror” it stands accused of supporting Taliban militants who have stepped up attacks in border regions of Afghanistan.

While Pakistan denies the charge, analysts say the reality reflects Pakistani concerns about growing Indian influence on the Karzai government, whose main faction considers Delhi a friend and Islamabad a traditional foe.

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