MOHALI, India – The prime ministers of India and Pakistan on Wednesday used an exciting cricket match as a backdrop to hold wide-ranging talks on the impediments to improving their often fractious relationship.
As the two rival cricket teams battled it out at a stadium in the northern Indian city of Mohali, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani chose the game's venue to discuss ways to cement the diplomatic dialogue between their two countries.
"Today it is the Mohali spirit that pervades our relationship. This was an extremely positive and encouraging spirit that has been generated as a result of today's meeting," Nirupama Rao, India's foreign secretary told reporters at the end of the talks between the two leaders.
She said Singh and Gilani had a wide-ranging conversation on a slew of issues of concern to the two countries, including the next moves in a dialogue process that is being resumed after a break over the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.
Gilani has invited Singh to visit Pakistan and the proposal will be considered, Rao said.
Indicating a gradual thaw, the commerce, defense and foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan would meet over the coming months, eventually leading to the resumption of the peace dialogue between the foreign minister of the two countries, she said.
Earlier, greeting the players on the pitch, Singh and Gilani shook hands first with the visiting Pakistani team. They then switched positions, with Gilani and Singh shaking hands with the Indian players before the two retreated to their seats in a private box.
Their attendance at the World Cup semifinal coincided with a resumption of talks toward restoring trust between the nuclear-armed neighbors, who for decades have viewed each other as a major threat to national security and have fought three wars.
Gilani said Wednesday he hoped his visit would improve relations and looked forward to watching an exciting match.
He urged citizens in the two countries to enjoy the performances of both teams — an attempt to mitigate the inevitable disappointment one side will feel in losing the match.
"I am going there to show solidarity with our team, with their team and to promote cricket," Gilani told reporters at a military base outside Islamabad before flying to India along with a 20-member delegation that included many senior ministers.
Singh wrote in an earlier letter to Gilani that "We are all looking forward to a great game of cricket that will be a victory for sport."
The prime ministers' meeting gave both men a chance to speak candidly on a range of tense issues without the pressure of public expectations, as all eyes across South Asia were focused on Wednesday's cricket clash.
Midway through the match, Singh and Gilani moved away from the stands for a dinner hosted by Singh in honor of his Pakistani counterpart.
It is Gilani's first visit to India as prime minister, and echoes a similar effort at "cricket diplomacy" in 2005 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then president, joined Singh for a match in New Delhi.
Despite the encouraging comments from Rao about what transpired at Wednesday's talks, both nations staunchly disagree over key issues, including the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir, where they maintain heavily armed deployments along a cease-fire line.
Both prime ministers also face strong opposition at home to compromising on positions entrenched over decades, while Gilani's civilian government struggles to operate independently from Pakistan's powerful military.
Nevertheless, the meeting marks a tentative return of good will, after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks blamed on Pakistan-based militants led to a suspension in peace talks.
The prospect of a thaw in relations seemed to enthuse the crowds, who waved Indian and Pakistani flags and cheered lustily. At one stage in the match, fans held up a big banner with a Pakistan flag at one end and an Indian flag at the other and the words "Friends Forever" in the middle.
On Tuesday, officials from both sides agreed to a range of small measures to improve trust and cooperation in fighting terrorism, including setting up a hotline between their home secretaries and allowing Indian authorities to visit Pakistan for their investigation into the Mumbai attacks.
Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, also attended the cricket match — a trip underlining the governing party's support for the renewal of dialogue with Pakistan.
Hours before the match's start, hundreds of people had already taken their seats in the fortified stadium, where hundreds of police and security staff were conspicuously in place. Nearby roads were closed off with multiple checkpoints.
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report from Islamabad.