Manmohan, Zardari, Gilani to watch cricket — for peace (Roundup)

March 25th, 2011 - 10:24 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh New Delhi, March 25 (IANS) In a replay of cricket diplomacy that could help resume their stalled peace process, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Friday invited Pakistani leaders Asif Ali Zardari and Yusuf Raza Gilani to see the India-Pakistan World Cup semi-final at Mohali March 30 — the first cricket clash between them after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.

Informed sources in Chandigarh told IANS that President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani — whose wife has also been invited — had accepted the invitation to watch what is being billed as the biggest draw of the World Cup 2011.

After India crushed Australia in Ahmedabad Thursday to set up the semi-final clash against Pakistan, Manmohan Singh — a strong advocate of peace with Islamabad — sent the invites through the Pakistani high commission in New Delhi.

“It gives me great pleasure to invite you to visit Mohali (in Punjab) and join me and millions of fans from our two countries to watch the match,” Manmohan Singh said in his near identical letters to Zardari and Gilani.

Manmohan Singh said his wife Gursharan Kaur will also be at the Mohali stadium, one of India’s finest cricket grounds. He urged Gilani to bring along his “gracious wife”.

“I propose to be at Mohali to watch the World Cup semi-final match between India and Pakistan… There is huge excitement over the match and we are all looking forward to a great game of cricket, that will be a victory for sport,” Manmohan Singh said.

India and Pakistan have not played cricket against each other since 10 Pakistani terrorists sneaked into Mumbai in November 2008 and slaughtered 166 people — almost triggering a war between the two countries.

The letter to Gilani read: “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.”

In no time, the Chandigarh Police got instructions from New Delhi to prepare for the high-profile visits of the Pakistani and Indian leaders, informed sources told IANS.

Pakistan’s envoy to Britain, Wajid Shamshul Hasan, quickly applauded the Indian invitation.

“It is a great goodwill gesture,” Hasan told CNN-IBN television channel. “It (the semi-final) is not just a cricket match. It is a great occasion.”

Manmohan Singh’s invitation is a repeat of similar cricket diplomacy on two earlier occasions. But Zardari and Gilani would be the first civilian leaders of Pakistan to get such invites.

In 1987, Gen. Zia ul-Haq visited Jaipur at Indira Gandhi’s invitation. Almost two decades later, in 2005, then president Pervez Musharraf flew to New Delhi on Manmohan Singh’s invitation.

Both those visits helped ease tensions in India-Pakistan relations.

The announcement of Manmohan Singh’s invitation came soon after the Pakistani team led by Shahid Afridi arrived in Chandigarh Friday.

Pakistani players including Mohammad Hafeez, Kamran Akmal, Younis Khan, Umar Gul and Shoaib Akhtar reached the hotel Taj with scores of police and other security personnel providing them cover.

Security personnel lined both sides of the stretch between the Chandigarh airport and the hotel.

“We have made foolproof security cover both inside and outside the hotel where the Pakistan team is staying. We have issued do’s and don’ts to the players and officials. We have told them to inform us if they want to go out,” Chandigarh Senior Superintendent of Police H.S. Doon said.

Just before the cricket diplomacy became public knowledge, Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, Shahid Malik, said an India-Pakistan cricket match was good for both countries.

A cricket fan himself, Malik said the two countries also needed to move ahead in other areas. He urged New Delhi to issue the maximum visas to Pakistanis eager to see the Mohali semi-final.

The diplomat spoke glowingly of the Pakistani team, saying it had shown it was a winning squad.

“In fielding, batting, bowling, in every field (they are outstanding),” he said. “It (semi-final) is a challenge. Let us see what happens on March 30.”

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