Indo-Pak WCup semifinal a good reason for talks

KATY DAIGLE - Associated Press
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, and opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's senior leader L.K.Advani greet each other during a function at the Indian parliament in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, March 23, 2011. Singh took to the floor of both houses of Parliament on Wednesday to defend himself and his party from a growing furor over a WikiLeaks cable alleging government corruption.(AP Photo) INDIA OUT

India's prime minister has extended a warm and rare invitation for the leaders of rival Pakistan to join him at a cricket World Cup semifinal between their respective teams.

Wednesday's match will be the first Pakistan has played in India since terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 sent relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors to a new low.

As the countries suspended political talks, with the attacks blamed on Pakistan-based militants, sports relations were also put on hold.

But next week's match between the cricket-crazed countries presents a unique chance for diplomacy at the highest level.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent identical letters to both Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani inviting them to join him in watching the match in Mohali in the border state of Punjab.

"There is huge excitement over the match, and we are looking forward to a great game of cricket that will be a victory for sport," Singh wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. "It gives me great pleasure to invite you and your gracious wife to visit Mohali and join me, my wife and the millions of fans from our two countries to watch the match."

Pakistan welcomed the gesture, according to Press Trust of India, which reported Gilani would answer after returning from a trip to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Earlier Friday, Pakistan's High Commissioner to India said the cricketing "encounter" should enhance bilateral talks scheduled for after the event.

The Pakistan team arrived from Dhaka, Bangladesh on Friday and "has been very well received" in India, Shahid Malik was quoted by PTI as saying. "I think it bodes well for the cricketing ties between the two countries, and that is what should lead to other things also."

It is not the first time India-Pakistan tensions have been reduced by the so-called "gentleman's game."

In 2005, cricket played a central role as India and Pakistan tried to resolve their long-running dispute over the Kashmir region. Talks between Singh and Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was president at the time, were squeezed around a Sunday cricket match in New Delhi between the two countries.

And in 1987, President Zia-ul Haq also went to India to watch a test match in Jaipur at the invitation of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The two met and held discussions after the match in Delhi.

Pakistan and India — which have fought three wars since their 1947 independence from Britain — announced in February they were resuming talks aimed at restarting the peace process and reduce tensions that have led them to maintain heavily armed deployments along a cease-fire line running through Kashmir.

They have not said exactly when talks would begin, but Pakistan's foreign minister is due to visit India by July. The talks are focused on counterterrorism efforts, humanitarian issues, peace and security, Kashmir and other border issues.

Kashmir is divided between the two countries, which both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety.


Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma contributed to this report.