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A Strike at the 'Soul' of S. Asia

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A dozen men attacked Sri Lanka's cricket team with rifles, grenades and rocket launchers Tuesday ahead of a match in Pakistan, wounding several players and killing six police officers. Video by AP

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By Pamela Constable and Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

KABUL, March 3 -- Across South Asia, cricket has become a symbol of regional camaraderie at a time of growing political and religious strife.

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From the crowded slums of Dhaka to the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir, the sport is played on any available patch of dirt or stretch of sidewalk in this impoverished region of hundreds of millions of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.

When a squad of terrorists armed with grenades, rockets and rifles opened fire on a busload of visiting Sri Lankan cricket players in Lahore, Pakistan, on Tuesday morning, the assailants seemed bent on destroying what remains of South Asian civic and sporting goodwill.

"The terrorists know the world is watching when they target cricket -- the soul of this region," said Norris Pritam, an Indian sports historian in New Delhi. The attack, in the capital of Pakistan's powerful Punjab province, killed six Pakistani policemen and two civilians and wounded seven of the players before the gunmen vanished on foot into the city. It appeared likely to exacerbate the political crisis in Pakistan. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari has been severely weakened by partisan infighting and unable to gain control of a rapidly growing, violent threat from radical groups.

No group asserted responsibility for the attack, and it was not clear why the Sri Lankan team was targeted. But Pakistani officials said the attack bore a resemblance to a terrorist siege in India in November, in which a small group of armed men rampaged through the city of Mumbai for several days, attacking hotels and other buildings and leaving more than 170 people dead.

Police said about a dozen attackers ambushed a convoy carrying players and officials as they approached Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium, where Pakistan and Sri Lanka were to play a test match. They said the attackers were highly trained and organized. A Pakistani news camera captured several young men with backpacks firing at the bus and then taking cover. After a 15-minute battle with police, all the attackers managed to escape.

Officials said six policemen escorting the convoy were killed, along with the bus driver and another civilian. Two Sri Lankan players were in stable condition after being treated for bullet wounds, an umpire was more seriously wounded, with a gunshot to the stomach, and five other players had minor injuries.

The targeting of Lahore for a high-profile terrorist assault adds a twist to the tensions between India and Pakistan, neighboring nuclear-armed states and longtime adversaries. Lahore is the base of a radical Islamist group, Lashkar-i-Taiba, which Indian officials asserted had links to the Mumbai assault squad.

Pakistan once covertly sponsored Lashkar, an anti-India militant group, but officially banned it several years ago at U.S. insistence. Islamist fighters in Pakistan have increasingly turned against the government in a campaign of bombings and killings, but they have been concentrated in northwest Pakistan, and Punjab has been relatively unaffected.

"Whoever did this wanted to send a strong message that no area in Pakistan is beyond their reach," Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense and security studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, said by telephone from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "I fear they may follow up with something more grisly and devastating."

Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a long-running war with ethnic separatist guerrillas known as the Tamil Tigers, but police officials said it was unlikely the assault on the Sri Lankan athletes had been carried out by the Tigers. The Tigers have been losing ground in recent months, while radical Islamist groups in the region have become more aggressive, organized and ambitious.

"This was an organized attack," Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, told journalists in Lahore, drawing parallels with the Mumbai attacks. "They are trying to damage Pakistan. But it could have been far worse. Our security was there and they got the brunt of it."


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