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Indian PM invites Musharraf for visit
Updated: 2005-03-10 20:44

India's prime minister said Thursday that he has invited Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for a visit to watch a cricket match between the rival countries, a step that may accelerate the peace process started by the nuclear-armed rivals a year ago.

Manmohan Singh also said that peace talks between the countries were "moving forward."

"Nothing brings the people of the subcontinent together more than our love for cricket and Bollywood," Singh said in a speech in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament. India's prolific film industry is known as Bollywood.

India and Pakistan began a peace process last year aimed at ending decades of enmity, dominated by their territorial dispute over Kashmir. They have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947 and just three years ago again came to the brink of war.

Singh met Musharraf last year on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and his government has carried forward the dialogue started by his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

"After my meeting with Gen. Musharraf, there has been a sustained dialogue on all items on the composite dialogue agenda," Singh told lawmakers. "We are moving forward."

Musharraf visited India in 2001, when he traveled to Agra for a summit with then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but the visit failed to make headway in improving ties.

An attack on India's Parliament later that year, which India blamed on Pakistan's spy agency and Pakistan-backed Islamic militant groups, saw the neighbors almost go to war again. Diplomatic pressure by the United States and the European Union finally ended the standoff.

Vajpayee's January 2004 visit to the Pakistani capital for a regional summit, and his meeting there with Musharraf, eased tensions enough so that peace talks could start.

On Thursday, Singh said cricket would help move things along.

"I have decided to invite President Musharraf to come to India and watch the cricket match," Singh said. "I do hope (he) and his family will enjoy their visit to our country."

After the current test match in the northern town of Mohali, Pakistan will play test matches in Calcutta and Bangalore, followed by six one-day international matches.

Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman said Wednesday that there had been an invitation and that Musharraf was considering whether to make the trip.

Cricket is, by far, the most popular sport in both countries, and matches between India and Pakistan can be both fervent demonstrations of nationalism and cross-border friendliness. Indian players and fans were warmly welcomed in Pakistan last year, when the countries played a month-long series there. Musharraf attended two matches and hosted the players at a reception at the Presidential Palace, though Vajpayee declined an invitation to watch a match.

So far this year, Indians have given a warm welcome to the visiting Pakistanis.

Given its regional importance, cricket is often affected by fluctuations in political relations, with matches sometimes canceled amid diplomatic crises and player security a major issue.

But it has also been a tool of diplomacy.

In 1987, Pakistan's then-President General Zia-ul-Haq attended a test match between India and Pakistan in the Indian city of Jaipur a visit that apparently helped cool a flare-up in tensions.

Cricket tours between India and Pakistan were revived last year in the wake of diplomatic initiatives to bury half a century of mutual hostility. Both sides relaxed their tough visa regulations for each other, allowing thousands of fans to travel across the border.

New Delhi had cut off cricket ties with Pakistan for four years after an armed conflict between the archrivals in the Himalayan region of Kargil in 1999.

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