LAHORE, Pakistan – A team of heavily armed gunmen, some traveling in rickshaws, ambushed Sri Lanka's national cricket team Tuesday as it arrived for a match, killing six police guards and wounding seven players. The brazen attack heightened fears that Pakistan is becoming increasingly unstable.
The assault bore striking similarities to last year's three-day hostage drama in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai.
Working in pairs, the attackers in Lahore carried walkie-talkies and backpacks stuffed with water, dried fruit and other high-energy food — a sign they anticipated a protracted siege and may have been planning to take the players hostage.
The bus sped through the ambush, but the gunmen's preparations indicated they may been planning to hijack the vehicle, Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told The Associated Press. None of the gunmen were killed and all apparently escaped into this teeming eastern city.
Even though the bus was peppered with 25 bullet holes, none of the cricket players were killed. The attack was among the highest-profile terrorist strikes on a sports team since the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian militants killed 11 Israeli athletes.
In addition, by targeting not only a major Pakistani city but also the country's most popular sport, the attack was sure to resonate throughout the region, where cricket has been an obsession since it was introduced by the British during the colonial era.
In targeting the sport, the gunmen were certain to draw international attention to the government's inability to provide basic security as it battles militants linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban and faces accusations that it is harboring terrorists.
The attack ended Pakistan's hopes of hosting international cricket teams — or any high profile sports events — for months, if not years. Even before Tuesday, most cricket squads chose not to tour the country for security reasons. India and Australia had canceled tours, and New Zealand announced Tuesday it was calling of its December tour.
Besides the six police officers, a driver of a vehicle in the convoy was also killed, officials said. Seven Sri Lankan players, a Pakistani umpire and a coach from Britain were wounded, none with life-threatening injuries.
Malik did not speculate on the identity of the attackers, but said Pakistan was "in a state of war" and vowed to "flush out all these terrorists from this country."
Pakistan has a web of Islamist militant networks, some with links to al-Qaida and the Taliban, which have staged other high-profile strikes in a bid to destabilize the government and punish it for its support of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The convoy transporting the Sri Lankan team and cricket officials was surrounded by police vehicles at the front, rear and side, but traveled the same route each day of the five-day test match against Pakistan's national team, according to Malik. The attack occurred on the third day of play just before 9 a.m.
The assailants struck at a traffic circle about 300 yards from the Gaddafi Stadium in downtown Lahore, firing at least one grenade and a rocket as well as repeated automatic weapon rounds from a white car, before other gunmen attacked from three other locations, witnesses and officials said.
Lahore police chief Haji Habibur Rehman said the attackers arrived at the scene in motorized rickshaws and two cars, and police later seized a large cache of weapons abandoned in one of the rickshaws and elsewhere near the scene.
The arsenal displayed for journalists included rocket-propelled grenades, pistols, 25 hand grenades, submachine guns and plastic explosives.
Despite the onslaught, the bus carrying the Sri Lankan players did not stop, speeding through the hail of bullets and into the stadium, likely saving many lives.
As the players ducked, shouting "Go! Go!" driver Mohammad Khalil said he maneuvered the bus, pocked with bullet holes and its windshield shattered, into the stadium.
Bloodied players were helped off the vehicle and Sri Lankan team captain Mahela Jayawardene shouted: "Get more ambulances in here! Get more ambulances in here," according to Tony Bennet, an Australian cameraman covering the match.
At the traffic circle, gunmen fought a 15-minute battle with police. Pakistani TV footage showed at least two pairs of gunmen with backpacks firing on the convoy from a stretch of grass, taking cover behind a monument.
"These people were highly trained and highly armed — the way they were holding their guns, the way they were taking aim and shooting at the police," said Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, adding that they "used the same methods... as the terrorists who attacked Mumbai."
One militant group likely to fall under suspicion is Lashkar-e-Taiba, the network blamed for the Nov. 26-28 Mumbai attacks, in which 10 gunmen targeted luxury hotels, a Jewish center and other sites, killing 164 people.
The group has been targeted by Pakistani authorities since then, and its stronghold is in eastern Pakistan.
In the past, India and Pakistan — who have fought three wars since 1947 — have often blamed each other for attacks on their territories.
While some politicians and retired generals, along with ordinary Pakistanis, hinted at an Indian hand in the Lahore attacks, government leaders and security chiefs did not. Any high-level allegations like that would trigger fresh and possibly dangerous tensions between the countries, already running high following the Mumbai attacks.
There were also no indications that authorities in Pakistan or Sri Lanka suspected Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger separatist rebels, who are being badly hit in a military offensive at home and have staged scores of terror attacks in the past.
Rehman, the Lahore police chief, said the 12-14 assailants resembled Pashtuns, the ethnic group from close to the Afghan border, the stronghold of al-Qaida and the Taliban. He said officers were hunting for them.
U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters in Washington that the United States condemned "this vicious attack on innocent civilians but also on the positive relations that Pakistan and Sri Lanka are trying to enjoy."
The most seriously wounded cricket official was umpire Ahsan Raza, who underwent an operation after being shot in the abdomen, a medical official said.
Two Sri Lankan players — batsmen Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavitana — suffered bullet wounds and were treated in a hospital, said Chamara Ranavira, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan High Commission. Paranavitana was grazed by a bullet in the chest, and Samaraweera has a bullet wound in his thigh, he said. The team traveled home to Sri Lanka later Tuesday.
Cricket's governing body said it would review Pakistan's status as co-host of the 2011 World Cup
International Cricket Council chief executive Haroon Lorgat said the council will meet in Dubai next month to discuss whether to redistribute World Cup matches among India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the competition's other co-hosts.
Associated Press Writers Krishan Francis and Ravi Nessman in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, and Babar Dogar in Lahore contributed to this report.