Tue, 03 Mar 2009 20:43 EST
Up to 14 gunmen are on the run after a terror attack on the Sri Lankan national cricket team today in which seven cricketers were hurt and at least seven people died.
Heavily armed attackers working in pairs opened fire on the team’s tour bus and a minibus carrying match officials, as their convoy was on the way to the third day’s play in the second Test against Pakistan at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore.
Six policemen and a minibus driver were shot dead. Despite the injuries to the Sri Lankan players, the team appears to have had an almost miraculous escape. The shocked players told how the attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the bus, but missed.
Grenades were also rolled underneath the wheels of the bus, but failed to go off, and although the gunmen aimed at the driver of the team bus, he was unhurt and was able to drive out of the ambush.
The driver was hailed as hero for steering the bus to safety. “The gunmen targeted the wheels of the bus first and then the bus,” said the Sri Lankan captain, Mahela Jayawardene, who was among the injured. “We all dived to the floor to take cover.”
Another driver, Mehar Mohammad Khalil, said: “I was turning the bus towards the stadium near the main roundabout when I saw a rocket fired at us. it missed us and hit an electric pole, after which all hell broke loose.”
Ehsan Raza, the fourth umpire, who was travelling in the match officials’ minibus, is in a critical condition after being shot in the abdomen. Chris Broad, the British match referee, shielded him with his body to prevent his being shot again.
Experts defused two car bombs and recovered grenades, three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of explosives, a pistol and a detonating cable apparently dumped by the attackers.
“It was terrible. The van driver died in front of us. I am lost for words,” said Steve Davis, one of the match umpires.
The attack happened at about 8.40am local time (04.40GMT). The gunmen converged from four directions as the bus navigated a roundabout in Bank Alfalah Square, a smart area lined with designer boutiques. Three arrived on rickshaws.
Local television channels showed CCTV footage of the attackers spraying the team bus and police with automatic fire from AK-47 assault rifles, working in pairs, using walkie-talkies and wearing backpacks over civilian dress.
Sajid Munir, 30, an immigration officer, told The Times that he was having breakfast with his wife in the Capri restaurant, about 50 metres from the attack site, when he heard two or three explosions.
“After that they started firing – too much firing,” he said. “It went on for about 30 minutes. They had machine guns. We were very scared. We thought they would come and shoot the people in the restaurant next.”
He said he saw two of the gunmen driving away on a motorbike.
“The driver was wearing a white shirt with blood down the front,” he said. “We don’t know who these people are, but I don’t think they are human. This is very bad for Pakistan and for cricket.”
Seven members of the Sri Lankan national side were hurt: Jayawardene; Kumar Sangakkara, the batsman and vice-captain, who was treated by the team doctor for shrapnel in his shoulder; Ajantha Mendis, a bowler, who was hit in the back by shrapnel; and bowlers Suranga Lakmal and Chaminda Vaas, who were also treated at the scene.
Two players were hit by bullets and taken to hospital – Thilan Samaraweera, who was struck in the leg, and Tharanga Paranavithana, who was hurt in the chest – but both were said to be stable.
Paul Farbrace, the team’s British assistant coach, was hit in the arm.
Jayawardene and Sangakkara had been given assurances that the team would be safe before they agreed to tour.
None of the 14 or attackers was killed or captured at the scene, said Haji Habibur Rehman, the Lahore police chief.
The Pakistani authorities immediately blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned Islamist militant faction that is widely believed to have struck Mumbai in November.
The head of Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, said that the country was “in a state of war” and would track down the perpetrators of the attack.
“We will flush out all these terrorists from this country,” he said.
In the aftermath, two Pakistani military helicopters landed at the cricket ground and evacuated team members and officials. Discarded weapons, spent cartridges, shattered glass and splashes of blood littered the scene.
The match was called off and the Sri Lankan President sent a plane to fly the team home.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) condemned the attack, but was condemned in turn for allegedly allowing the tour to go ahead. David Morgan, the ICC President, denied that his organisation had any role in deciding whether Pakistan was safe enough for a tour.
“So long as the two countries are in agreement on safety and security, the ICC does not have a role,” Mr Morgan said.
The attack will come as a severe blow to Pakistan’s fragile democracy which faces an upsurge in Islamist extremism and a collapsing economy.
It throws doubt on Pakistan’s suitability as a tour venue for any international sports team, and on its role as a joint host of the 2011 Cricket World Cup, which is due to be played across South Asia, in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Sri Lanka was contesting the first Test series to take place in Pakistan for 14 months. It had stepped in at short notice as a replacement for India, which had cancelled its tour after relations between the neighbouring countries deteriorated in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks in November last year. Australia also refused to tour Pakistan last year because of security concerns.
Sri Lanka’s decision to tour was seen as a gesture of support from a country that has also suffered from terrorist attacks in its long-running war with Tamil separatist rebels.
The Sri Lankan Government reacted to the attacks with shock and anger, but appeared to rule out involvement of the Tamil Tigers.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan President, cut short a visit to Nepal, and ordered his Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, to fly to Pakistan to oversee the evacuation of the Sri Lankan players.
“I condemn this cowardly terrorist attack,” he said, adding that his team had gone to Pakistan as “ambassadors of goodwill” following India’s withdrawal after the Mumbai attacks.
Gamini Lokuge, Sri Lanka’s Sports Minister, insisted that the safety of the players had been given all necessary consideration before the tour began. “The team was provided with heavy security and I was happy with the preparations the Pakistani officials had taken before we undertook the Test tour,” he said.
Hours after the attack a crowd of mostly young Pakistani men milled around the manicured lawn and flowers beds in the centre of the roundabout, some of them filming the scene with their mobile phones, others talking in hushed tones about the attack.
“Government is to blame,” said Javed Ahmad, 28, who works in the nearby Liberty shopping mall, and also heard the attack. “There should have been more security.”
Comment: Fourteen gunmen, all escaped, how is this possible? There’s way more to this than meets the eye:
This Times report of fourteen attackers is somewhat baffling considering early reports mentioned only three or four attackers.
Many reports are quoting the number as twelve gunmen, a figure provided by Lahore police chief chief Habib-ur Rehman.
There’s the matter of police taking 45 minutes to arrive on the scene following the attack.
Then there’s the CCTV footage, by the time Europe was waking up this footage was already showing on News websites, that’s under five hours! How and why did this footage of the attack get to air so quickly? Quicker than you can say…
“Lashkar-e-Taiba”: How are Pakistani authorities so certain that they can immediately point the finger to apportion blame here? Equally, how can they rule out any involvement of the attackers having Sri Lankan connections to LTTE fighters backed by Indian RAW? Where is the evidence?
With the stage management of this attack, the made to measure comparisons to an equally dubious Mumbai attack that was as good as blamed on Pakistan, this appears to be another push in the process of destabilising the country. Moves designed to isolate Pakistan internationally and make it a new haven for the ‘others’ in the public mind, in advance of U.S. military escalation.
The worrying indication now, is that officials within Pakistan seem to be playing right along. A reminder after all, that essentially there is only one government.