New Delhi: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has accepted an invitation from Manmohan Singh to visit the country this week to watch a cricket match between their national teams, a move that could help improve ties between the nuclear rivals.
Gilani’s visit will be the first by a leader of either country to the other side since a November 2008 attack in Mumbai by terrorists from Pakistan undermined peace talks.
The two neighbours are yet to resolve a six-decade-old dispute over Kashmir, while India blames Pakistan for fomenting terrorism in the disputed region and elsewhere.
Cricket is the most popular sport in both countries, and their teams would play each other at Mohali near Chandigarh on Wednesday for a place in the final of the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup.
On Friday, after India secured a place in the semifinal, Prime Minister Singh had invited Gilani and Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari to watch the match; analysts dubbed the invitation “cricket diplomacy”.
“We have welcomed the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister Mr Manmohan Singh and it has now been decided that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani will visit India to watch the match,” Zardari’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar said on Sunday, according to the Reuters news agency.
A Pakistani diplomat in New Delhi, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Gilani was unlikely to extend his stay beyond the match for formal talks with Singh in New Delhi.
“One cannot expect any breakthroughs,” said Kalim Bahadur, a former professor of South Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Nonetheless, Gilani’s visit would “improve the atmospherics between the two countries badly vitiated by the Mumbai attacks.”
Pakistan had acknowledged in early 2009 that the 10 gunmen who had attacked several locations in Mumbai during the 26-29 November 2008 siege, killing 166 people, had set sail from its southern port city of Karachi.
India and Pakistan have lately resumed formal diplomatic talks as well, and Pakistan’s interior secretary Chaudhry Qamar Zaman is in India to meet his counterpart on Monday.
Cricket diplomacy between the two countries is not new. In 2005, Singh had invited then Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf to watch a match in New Delhi. Pakistan’s then president, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, visited India in 1987 to watch a match when both countries were locked in a tense standoff.
Reuters contributed to this story.