PM Ashraf prays at Ajmer shrine

March 09, 2013


Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf gestures after offering prayers at the shrine of a Sufi saint in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, March 9, 2013. — Photo by Reuters

AJMER, India: Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on Saturday prayed at a 13th-century shrine in northern India on a lightning one-day visit in which politics was kept off the agenda. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid earlier hosted a lunch for Ashraf at the Rambagh Palace, a luxury heritage hotel in the tourist city of Jaipur, and said he was welcoming the premier with “open arms”, despite strained relations between the countries over recent border clashes.

“It's in our culture to welcome our guests with open arms,” said Khurshid, adding that controversial topics such as alleged sponsorship of cross-border militancy by Pakistan, were not discussed at the lunch.

“Today it was a private visit. There were no official talks. We will do it at the appropriate time,” Khurshid said.

On Friday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told parliament ties between the South Asian neighbours could improve only if Pakistan shunned its alleged support to “the terror machine” of cross-border militancy.

Pakistan, which has fought three wars with India since independence from Britain in 1947, rejects New Delhi's charges that she supports militant attacks on Indian soil.

After the luncheon meeting, Ashraf, whose government's term ends on March 16, flew to the shrine in Ajmer, 130 kilometres from Jaipur.

Ashraf and his family prayed at the revered shrine of Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz and were slated to return to Islamabad later on Saturday.

Ashraf was the most senior Pakistani official to visit India since last April when President Asif Ali Zardari made a similar pilgrimage and had lunch with Prime Minister Singh.

Tensions spiked between New Delhi and Islamabad in January and February as a total of six soldiers were killed in exchanges along the de facto border in Kashmir, a region claimed by both countries.

Four of the soldiers killed were from Pakistan while two were from India.

One of the Indians was beheaded allegedly by Pakistanis.

Some Indians, including the symbolic spiritual head of the Ajmer shrine Zainul Abedin Ali Khan, objected to Prime Minister Ashraf's pilgrimage.

Khan had said he would refuse to assist the premier during the prayers.

“I expected the Pakistani prime minister to bring back the head of the Indian martyr, tender an apology to the people of India and the family of the soldier,” Khan said.

However, his decision did not affect the Pakistani premier's visit because other shrine members assisted Prime Minister Ashraf, officials at the religious site said.