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.
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."
Some Pakistani analysts said the attackers benefited from the unfolding political crisis in Punjab, in which the top political leaders of the province were removed last week in a power struggle with Zardari, who comes from a rival party. They said security might have been tighter Tuesday if the provincial government had not been in disarray.
"This shows how naive and irresponsible the government has been," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general and political analyst, speaking from Islamabad. "They are playing politics and trying to destabilize Punjab at the expense of national integrity and security."
Sports officials and analysts said the attack signaled the demise of international cricket in Pakistan, which has already been boycotted by teams from India and Australia because of major security threats.
"This is the death of cricket in Pakistan," said Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistani army general and security analyst. "Only Sri Lanka had the courage to come and play here."
Sri Lanka had agreed to play in Pakistan in part as a goodwill gesture after India pulled out of the tournament in response to the Mumbai attacks. After the Tuesday attack, the tournament was canceled, and Sri Lankan authorities arranged to have the players return home immediately. In India, news stations compared the Lahore attack to the 1972 Munich attack on Israeli Olympians by fighters linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Pakistan was scheduled to host the cricket World Cup in 2011, but the sport's governing body, the International Cricket Council, earlier asked organizers to plan alternative venues because of the heightened security risk in the country. Officials said they doubt the tournament can be held there.
"Targeting a sporting team is the most dastardly attack to commit," said Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, in a telephone interview from Colombo. "But in this part of the world, we have been living with terrorists for a long time."
Wax reported from New Delhi. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.