LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – A dozen gunmen attacked Sri Lanka’s cricket team on Tuesday with rifles, grenades and rockets, wounding six players and a British coach while killing six Pakistanis in Lahore, Pakistan, officials said.
The unidentified gunmen fired AK 47s and rockets and hurled grenades at Sri Lanka’s team bus as it was being driven to Lahore’s Gaddafi stadium for the third day of a match against Pakistan.
Team captain Mahela Jayawardene said the gunmen first shot at the tires then at the bus itself.
“We all dived to the floor to take cover,” he told Reuters by telephone from the stadium, before being evacuated by helicopter along with the rest of the team, including all the wounded.
The driver of the team bus said one attacker threw a grenade under the vehicle but it failed to detonate. The driver of a bus following behind, carrying the Australian umpires, was killed.
A city administration official, Sajjad Bhutta said six people were killed in the attack. According to officials and witnesses they included five police along with the second bus driver.
Bomb and gun attacks, mostly carried out by Islamist militants linked to the Taliban or al Qaeda, have become commonplace in Pakistan over the past few years because of the government’s support for the United States.
Tuesday’s incident had echoes of an attack on the Indian city of Mumbai last November in which around 170 people died and which led to the Indian cricket team cancelling its planned tour of Pakistan. The Sri Lankan team accepted an invitation to replace the Indians.
Westerners in Pakistan knew they could be targeted, but few analysts could divine any reason for attacking Sri Lankan cricketers other than to send a message that no one is safe coming to Pakistan.
India blamed the Mumbai attack on Pakistan-trained militants and the incident sharply raised tension between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, and brought international pressure on Pakistan to crack down on jihadi groups that its security agencies have been friendly with in the past.
The group blamed by India, Lashkar-e-Taiba, came from Pakistan’s Punjab province, whose capital is Lahore.
“One thing I want to say, it’s the same pattern, the same terrorists who attacked Mumbai,” said Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.
But a Pakistani minister accused India of being behind the attack.
“The evidence which we have got shows that these terrorists entered from across the border from India,” Sardar Nabil Ahmed Gabol, minister of state for shipping, told private Geo television. “This was a conspiracy to defame Pakistan internationally.”
The attack was launched as the Sri Lanka team bus slowed for a traffic circle near the stadium, according to Lahore Police chief Habib-ur-Rehman.
Witnesses saw gunmen with rifles and backpacks running through the streets and firing on people and vehicles around the massive stadium in the morning attack.
“I saw them from the window of my office firing at the police escort first. When the police dispersed after the shooting, they started firing at the bus of the Sri Lankan team,” Mohammad Luqman told Reuters.
The Punjab governor told reporters the assailants had been had been chased into a nearby commercial and shopping area. A massive security sweep was taking place across the city.
Police were searching buildings but had lost track of the men’s whereabouts. “We don’t know where they are,” said the police chief.
It was the first major attack on an international sporting team since Palestinian militants attacked Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
The attack highlights Pakistan’s seeming inability to defeat militancy spreading inside and outside the country and comes at a time when the United States is putting pressure on the government to do more to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Pakistan’s civilian government has lurched into political crisis less than a year since ex-army chief Pervez Musharraf was forced to quit as president, and the country is braced for street agitation by opposition parties in coming days.
“I think this is a deliberate attempt to undermine the government at the time when there is a huge political crisis in the country,” respected Lahore-based journalist Ahmed Rashid said.
“They are trying to create a vacuum of power in which eventually they can take over,” said the author of “Descent into Chaos,” chronicling Pakistan’s slide into the hands of extremists and militants.
“WHO WOULD WANT TO INVEST IN PAKISTAN?”
“This is not only an attack on the Sri Lankan team but on Pakistan,” said Shuja Rizvi, director of broking at Capital One Equities Ltd. “Who would want to invest then in Pakistan?”
The Karachi Stock Exchange benchmark 100-share index was down 2.33 percent at 2:20 p.m. (4:20 a.m. EST), while the rupee weakened 1.65 percent against the dollar.
A spokesman for the Sri Lanka High Commission in Islamabad said six players were wounded along with assistant coach Paul Farbrace, a Briton. Most of them were hit by shrapnel.
Star batsman Thilan Samaraweera seemed to be the worst hit, suffering a thigh injury. The other Sri Lankan player admitted to hospital was Tharanga Paranavithana.
Reserve umpire Ehsan Raza was also critically wounded, according to Ejaz Butt, chairman of Pakistan’s Cricket Board.
It was unclear whether their injuries were caused by bullets, shrapnel or flying shards of glass.
Sri Lanka immediately canceled the rest of the tour.
A helicopter airlifted the Sri Lankan squad from the stadium, including the two players brought from hospital, and they were all expected to be flown home later.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the attacks, as Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said he was cutting short a trip to Nepal to return home.
Until this series Pakistan had gone without test cricket for more then a year because of security concerns.
In 2002, a bomb exploded in Karachi while the New Zealand cricket team was touring, killing 13 people, including 11 French navy experts.