In one of the worst attacks on a sports team since the 1972 Munich Olympics, gunmen killed seven people when they opened fire on a vehicle carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team on Tuesday in Lahore, Pakistan.
Six police officers and a civilian driver were killed and members of Sri Lanka's national cricket team were wounded when about a dozen gunmen opened fire on a van taking members of the Sri Lankan team to Gaddafi Stadium, where they were scheduled to play Pakistan in the third day of a test match.
Lahore police chief Haji Habibur Rehman said the attackers, working in pairs, arrived at the scene in motorized rickshaws and two cars. Their weapons included rocket-propelled grenades, pistols, submachine-guns, plastic explosives, and 25 hand grenades.
Witnesses said there was a 15-minute gun battle between the gunmen and the police officers who were guarding the Sri Lankan transport vehicles. The attackers 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, officials said.
No Sri Lankan cricket players were killed in the attack, but seven were wounded. The team's British assistant coach was also injured, along with an umpire who was travelling in a vehicle behind the Sri Lankan team, officials said.
Video showed the team's white van at a traffic circle less than a kilometre from the stadium, the windshield riddled with 25 bullet holes, and a police motorcycle crashed on the road as authorities scrambled to secure the scene.
The six officers who died "sacrificed their lives to protect the Sri Lankan team," Rehman said.
Driver credited with saving players
No attackers were killed or captured at the scene, Rehman said.
The team's bus driver, Mohammad Khalil, was credited by officials with likely having saved the players' lives. He accelerated as bullets ripped into the vehicle and explosions rocked the air, steering the team to the safety of the stadium.
"We were very lucky to escape this terrible ambush and we are extremely grateful to those that showed such courage in trying to protect us," said team captain Mahela Jayawardene.
"We owe the team bus driver our lives for his remarkable bravery in the face of direct gunfire," he said. "Had he not had the courage and presence of mind to get the bus moving after the initial attack, then we'd have been a far easier target for the terrorists."
Hunt for attackers continues
Police are working to track the gunmen down, Rehman said.
Rehman said witnesses have reported the attackers appeared to resemble Pashtuns, an ethnic group that hails from close to the Afghan border, which is a stronghold of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Authorities said they will also be looking for possible links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the network blamed for the Mumbai attacks last year, and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger separatist rebels, who are being badly hit in a military offensive in that country.
"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, it shows they were not ordinary people," said Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province. "This is the same style as the terrorists who attacked Mumbai."
One Pakistani minister suggested India could be to blame.
"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," he added, suggesting Tuesday's attack was a response to the Mumbai attack.
Players flown home
Former Sri Lanka coach Trevor Penney said he never believed there'd be an attack on a cricket team in Pakistan because its population is so passionate about the sport.
"I know the players have lived in a country where there's been bombings and stuff like that and all these terrorist groups haven't really targeted cricketers up until now. So this has come as a big shock to the cricketing world," Penney said.
Two of the wounded players — Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavitana — were admitted to hospital in stable condition, said Chamara Ranavira, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan High Commission, which condemned the attack.
Samaraweera was struck by shrapnel in the leg and Paranavitana suffered a minor shrapnel wound in the chest, the team's vice-captain, Kumar Sangakkara, told Reuters.
Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Ajantha Mendis, Suranka Lakmal and Chaminda Vaas also suffered minor injuries, the Sri Lankan Cricket Board said.
The match was cancelled, and the uninjured members of the Sri Lankan team were taken from inside the stadium by a Pakistan army helicopter, which landed on the field.
The remainder of the tour has been cancelled, according to the International Cricket Council.
Cricket officials in Pakistan said a special flight taking all members of the Sri Lankan team home left Lahore for Colombo at 10 p.m. local time. The two players taken to hospital earlier in the day were also on board, said Pakistan Cricket Board chief operating officer Salim Altaf.
'We are sorry for the Sri Lankan team'
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa swiftly condemned the attack, as did Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram.
"We are sorry for the Sri Lankan team," Chidambaram said.
New Zealand and Indian cricketers donned black armbands during their international match in Napier, N.Z., on Tuesday as a mark of respect for the victims of the attack.
"I think we are shocked, as everyone is tonight," said New Zealand Cricket chief executive Justin Vaughan. "I think because it is the first time a cricket team has been the target of terrorist activity, there is a whole new scale of shock. It is terrible and our thoughts go out to those involved. We are dismayed that this has occurred and we have sent our best wishes directly to Sri Lanka and Pakistan."
New Zealand is calling off its December tour to Pakistan for safety reasons, but is hoping to meet Pakistan for a match at a neutral venue.
The ruling cricket body in Canada said there are no immediate plans to withdraw eight Canadian cricketers training in Sri Lanka.
"Our coaches indicated that based on the security that has been provided to us, we should not have any major concerns about the players at the moment because of the location," Cricket Canada secretary Calvin Clarke said from Toronto.
World Cup in Pakistan questioned
The attack on the Sri Lankan national cricket team in Pakistan will likely have implications for the future of the sport in the country, including a review of its ability to host the 2011 World Cup.
Pakistan was due to co-host the World Cup with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but now that is in doubt.
The current situation in Pakistan will likely make some cricketers question if they want to participate in a match in the country in the future, said David Morgan, president of the International Cricket Council.
The council will "have to think very carefully about the extent Pakistan will be used for that event," Morgan said. "It's a very important event, but the safety and security of players, officials and supporters is very important."
There will be discussions about the future of the World Cup in the coming days, said council chief executive Haroon Lorgat, and there will likely be repercussions.
Other teams, including Australia and the West Indies, have refused to compete in Pakistan recently because of growing concerns about unrest in the country and players' security.
Australian Cricketers' Association chief executive Paul Marsh said the attack would have a lasting impact on planned tours of Pakistan.
"It is one of those things; you know the risk is pretty large in that part of the world but there has always been a belief that sports people will not be targeted, and I am just stunned," said Marsh.