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 and killing at least eight Pakistanis in Lahore, officials said.
The attackers 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. They then escaped after a firefight with police that lasted 30 minutes.
Team captain Mahela Jayawardene said the gunmen first shot at the tyres 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.
At least eight people were killed in the attack including six police, according to statement from Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s office.
Police in Lahore, however, put the toll at seven dead, and officials said 16 people were wounded including the Sri Lankans.
The driver was hailed as a hero for steering the bus to safety as gunmen sprayed it with bullets from all sides and players screamed “go, go, go”.
“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,” driver Mehar Mohammad Khalil told Reuters, standing beside his bus.
The driver of a bus following behind, carrying the Australian umpires, was killed.
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.
Rehman Malik, the prime minister’s adviser on the Interior, said the country was in a “state or war.”
“Be patient, we will flush all these terrorists out of the country,” he said.
Tuesday’s incident had echoes of an attack on the Indian city of Mumbai last November in which around 170 people were killed 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 not divine any reason for attacking the Sri Lankans, other than to send a message that no visitors were safe.
India blamed the Mumbai attack on Pakistan-trained militants and the incident 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 for the Mumbai attacks, 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.
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. Television footage showed some of the attackers, who looked to be in their late teens.
The Punjab governor told reporters the assailants had been chased into a nearby commercial and shopping area, where police lost track of them. Police then searched buildings and stopped cars in a massive security sweep.
Punjab police chief Khuwaja Khalid Farooq said “some” arrests were made but declined to say if any gunmen were among them.
Farooq showed reporters weapons found at the scene and at other locations, including 10 AK-47 rifles, two rocket grenade launchers, 32 hand grenades and plastic explosives. Police also found biscuits, water and medicine.
“They were determined ... it was a thoroughly prepared operation,” the police chief said.
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 suppress militancy inside 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 former army chief Pervez Musharraf was forced to quit as president, and the country is braced for street agitation by opposition parties in the coming days.
“I think this is a deliberate attempt to undermine the government at the time when there is a huge political crisis,” respected Lahore-based journalist Ahmed Rashid said.
“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 fell 1.5 percent, while the rupee lost 0.4 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. Sri Lanka immediately cancelled the rest of the tour.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the attacks, and 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.
Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari, Augustine Anthony, Zeeshan Haider, Robert Birsel and Sahar Ahmed in Pakistan and Bryson Hull, Charlie Austin and Ranga Sirilal in Colombo