Senior U.S. diplomats on Wednesday urged archrivals India and Pakistan to exercise restraint in their missile programs to ease regional tension.

U.N. envoy Bill Richardson and Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth both had words of praise for India's new Hindu nationalist-led government during a visit to New Delhi.But both also expressed anxiety about rivalry with Pakistan snowballing into a race for arms superiority.

"We are concerned about the nuclear missile competition in the region," Inderfurth, the point man for South Asia in the U.S. State Department, told a news conference in New Delhi.

His comments echoed those of Richardson, who told Reuters Television in an interview the United States wanted to open a new chapter in relations with South Asia and play a mediating role to reduce tension in the region.

"We don't want to see an arms race here. We want to see tension reduced. So we're playing a mediating role," he said.

Richardson and Inderfurth, on a swing through the subcontinent to pave the way for a visit by President Clinton later this year, were scheduled to fly to Islamabad from New Delhi.

Their visit has come at a time of intense focus on defense in the region following Islamabad's announcement last week that it had test-fired its longest-range missile, the Ghauri.

India responded sharply to the test, accusing China of providing the missile technology and saying that its Prithvi missile could reach anywhere inside Pakistan.

India's month-old government has said it may build nuclear arms after a national security review, though Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said on Wednesday he did not see Pakistan's missile test as the trigger for a nuclear arms race.

Both India and Pakistan are considered "threshold" nuclear powers, with a track record of active nuclear research and missile programs but no arsenal.

Inderfurth repeated the State Department's initial response to the Pakistani test, saying it was "regrettable" and "an action that we have spoken to the Pakistan government about."

Asked about India's decision to consider nuclear weapon deployment, he said it was the actions taken that mattered.