By Krittivas Mukherjee
NEW DELHI, Jan 21 (Reuters) - A spat over cricket has sparked diplomatic mudslinging between India and Pakistan in the latest setback to efforts to improve relations between the two nuclear rivals, at loggerheads since the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
An auction of players at the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world's richest cricket tournament, ended with no bids for 11 Pakistanis this week amid fears Indian teams could have visa problems for the cricketers.
Pakistan, always sensitive to any hint of a snub by its neighbour, was furious. Some of the Pakistani players who failed to get a bid from the Indian sides are considered world class cricketers, such as all-rounder Shahid Afridi.
Indian TV stations aired pictures of straw effigies of IPL chief Lalit Modi burning on Pakistani streets on Thursday.
"I want to make it clear that whether it is India or any other country in the world, their citizens would have to face (the) same behaviour as meted out to our people," Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik was quoted by Pakistan's state-run APP news agency as saying on Wednesday.
The Indian government dismissed Pakistan's concerns.
"The government has nothing to do with the IPL," Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said on Thursday. "So Pakistan will have to draw that line between where government of India is connected, where government of India is an actor."
Tensions have mounted in recent weeks following a spate of border skirmishes and a spike in separatist violence in Indian Kashmir by Pakistan-based militant groups.
The deterioration comes at a bad time for the region. India's and Pakistan's foreign ministers are both due to attend a meeting in London next week where leading Western powers will focus on a new plan for Afghanistan.
"The IPL gives Pakistan an additional issue to prepare its ground that India is unfriendly, and such things will vitiate the atmosphere (of the London meeting)," said B.G. Verghese, a professor with the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
The United States is eager that India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since their independence from Britain, reduce tensions so Islamabad could concentrate its efforts on fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants on its western border. [ID:nSGE60K0BV]
But improvements in ties between the South Asian rivals remains limited as India refuses to resume five-year-long peace talks unless Islamabad cracks down on militants on its soil blamed for carrying out the Mumbai strikes that killed 166 people.
Many Pakistanis say their country is making progress against the militants, and see India's reluctance to engage Islamabad as unhelpful for the region.
While many Pakistanis remain obsessed with New Delhi's every move, a section in India is simply not as bothered with their rival as in the past as the Asian giant becomes more focused on the expanding $1.2 trillion economy and ties with China.
A new war is unlikely. It would benefit neither nuclear power and open their increasingly globalised economies to a risk of huge investor uncertainty.
But U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned on Wednesday that a second strike like Mumbai could provoke retaliation from India. [ID:nSGE60J0BI]
Cricket has often been a source of strengthening ties.
In the past, politicians from both sides have turned to cricket to reduce tension and tried to boost cultural links in what experts have called "Track-II Diplomacy" at times of intractable diplomatic deadlocks.
"The IPL saga brings home the fact that a lack of progress on political dialogue will cast a shadow on areas where we have done relatively well like culture and sports," said Lalit Mansingh, India's former foreign secretary.
Pakistani cricketers, the current world T20 champions, played in the inaugural edition of IPL in 2008, but were denied permission by Islamabad last year due to tensions between the rivals following the Mumbai attacks. (Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jerry Norton)