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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Deepak Obhrai and High Commissioner of India to Canada, Shashishekhar M. Gavai light an oil lamp at the launch of the "Year of India in Canada 2011" at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau on Friday, March 4, 2011.PATRICK DOYLE

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office is apologizing for hustling journalists out of an event just as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff was about to speak.

The two leaders were attending an event Friday evening hosted by the Indian high commission to launch "The Year of India in Canada."

Mr. Harper spoke briefly, after which reporters, photographers and TV camera crews were asked - by staff from the Prime Minister's Office - to leave.

The handful of journalists at the event, including a reporter for The Canadian Press, complied, unaware that Mr. Ignatieff was to address the gathering.

Outside, an aide to the Liberal leader furiously denounced the PMO for ensuring Mr. Ignatieff's presence would go unnoticed and groused that the prime minister's staff had even hauled away the podium from which Mr. Harper had spoken.

A spokesman for Mr. Harper later said it was all a misunderstanding but Liberals weren't buying it.

"It's an appalling abuse of power on a day when the government is under fire for using public resources to fund an ethnic media campaign to restrict the press from hearing the leader of the Opposition at a non-partisan, multicultural celebration," fumed Leslie Church, Mr. Ignatieff's communications director.

Ms. Church was referring to the furor over Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who fired a staffer Thursday for sending out a fundraising letter on Mr. Kenney's parliamentary letterhead. The letter was attempting to raise money for an advertising campaign aimed at ridings with large ethnic populations.

A press release issued earlier in the day by Mr. Ignatieff's office had said only that the Liberal leader would be attending the Indian event; it did not say he'd be addressing the gathering. Liberal insiders maintained the release was ambiguous about Mr. Ignatieff's participation because they were concerned the PMO would block the Liberal leader from speaking.

The PMO initially pointed out that it did not organize the event. As for the podium, it belongs to the PMO and another podium was provided for Mr. Ignatieff.

However, late Friday, Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall eventually apologized.

"Apologies for staff misunderstanding or over-zealousness," he said in an e-mail.

"Media should not have been asked to leave prior to Mr. Ignatieff's remarks."