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Ambush of Sri Lanka cricket team in Pakistan kills 7

A deadly gun and grenade attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team Tuesday, staged in broad daylight on a busy street in Lahore, delivered a powerful blow to Pakistan’s national pride and threatened to further undermine the fragile political stability of a nation under increasing pressure from the United States to crack down on terrorism.

The assault left eight people dead, six of them policemen, and half a dozen Sri Lankan players, a coach and an umpire injured. It could have been much worse, police said. A grenade thrown under the bus that carried the Sri Lankan team reportedly rolled out the other side, a missile missed, and unexploded bombs were found in two vehicles nearby.

But the damage to the Pakistani psyche was profound. It was among the worst armed attacks on a sports team since Palestinian militants killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and it targeted the visiting players of a sport that is followed with zeal across political and national boundaries in South Asia.

“Publicity is oxygen for terrorists, and this is about as high profile as you can get,” said Gulu Ezekiel, an Indian cricket analyst.

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No group immediately claimed responsibility, but U.S. officials and analysts in the region said one possibility was Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani militant group angry with the government in Islamabad for rounding up some of its leaders in India after they were named as suspects in the Mumbai rampage in November that left more than 170 people dead. Other suspects include local Punjab-based militants and Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, who have been angry about the government’s cooperation in U.S. efforts targeting their havens in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said the attack embarrassed the government in the eyes of its citizens and sullied its reputation abroad. The assailants’ aim was “to get international publicity and further weaken the government,” he said. “And they’ve achieved all that.”

“Whoever did this was trying to embarrass the Pakistan government and create a sense of chaos,” said Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA Pakistan analyst. “This is very damaging for the Pakistan government because of how much the country loves cricket. They love their cricket stars. They are rock stars.

“So it is very surprising. It’s another indication that the security situation in Pakistan is completely deteriorating.”

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Government turmoil

The country has been weakened of late by political battling between President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister; and large parts of the country’s border areas have long been beyond the government’s control. In recent weeks, Pakistan in effect ceded power to Islamic fundamentalists in the Swat Valley, about 100 miles from the capital, by allowing them to impose religious Sharia, or Islamic law.

The location of the attack, in the nation’s second-largest city, added to the perception that the government is losing its ability to provide security for its citizens and foreign visitors. In September, suspected Islamic militants detonated a massive truck bomb at the five-star Marriott hotel in the heart of Islamabad, killing more than 50 people.

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“Pakistanis are willing to countenance all sorts of things happening in the tribal areas,” said C. Christine Fair, a political analyst with the Rand Corp. in Washington. “But they are less willing to tolerate this in the heartland.”

Video of Tuesday’s violence, believed to involve at least a dozen militants, showed several of them walking calmly through a wooded area firing at will after ambushing the Sri Lankan team’s bus and security escort. The attack came as the bus negotiated a roundabout a few hundred yards from Lahore’s 60,000-seat Gaddafi Stadium. Nearly half an hour after the 8:35 a.m. attack, the bodies of four policemen were still visible at the roundabout amid pools of blood.

Rizwan Ahmad, 25, said he saw three people ride up on a motorcycle, dismount and spray the bus with automatic gunfire from weapons pulled out of their bags.

About the same time, at least two other groups converged, and a rocket was fired at the bus, hitting a shop instead, he said.

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“Police showed some resistance for the first 10 minutes, but then the attackers overpowered the scene,” said Ahmad, who hid behind a store a few feet away.

Police said some of the assailants arrived on motorized rickshaws, and all of the attackers escaped.

The government recovered ammunition boxes, a pistol, grenades, automatic weapons, a detonator cable, several pounds of explosives and a small rocket.

Despite Lahore’s relative proximity to Mumbai, the site of the 60-hour siege in late November, and the fact that militants in both cases used automatic weapons and grenades, security experts said the incidents didn’t have much in common.

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“I don’t see any dramatic similarity other than that it’s a commando attack, which we’ve seen hundreds of times in this region,” said Ajai Sahni, head of New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management. “There was no attempt to take hostages or occupy structures,” as was the case in Mumbai. “And any self-respecting terrorist in South Asia would have these weapons,” he said.

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World Cup venue

The attack was particularly shocking to many because it targeted cricket, the region’s most popular sport.

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Several countries had refused to send athletes to Pakistan for security reasons, and the attack Tuesday led international cricket officials to suggest that the country, which had taken pride in winning a role as a co-host of the 2011 Cricket World Cup, should consider staging those test matches elsewhere, such as Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Haroon Lorgat, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, told reporters in London that many teams would be skeptical about playing in Pakistan. “It’s difficult to see international cricket being played in Pakistan in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Palitha T.B. Kohona, Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary, said the country sent its team to Pakistan because the two nations have long enjoyed close relations.

“We had no reason to believe the Sri Lankan cricket team would be targeted,” he said.

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Kohona said it was possible that Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels, labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, had initiated the attack. But security experts said there was little evidence to back such speculation, adding that it was more likely that a Pakistani group was responsible, given the difficulty of launching such a large attack on foreign soil.

In addition to the six slain police officers, the attackers also killed a driver and another civilian. A coach and an umpire were injured in addition to the players, none of them critically.

The team was airlifted from the stadium by helicopter and returned to Sri Lanka.

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Sahi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Scott Kraft in Los Angeles, Josh Meyer of the Washington Bureau, Pavitra Ramaswamy of The Times’ New Delhi Bureau and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.


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