LAHORE, March 3 Sri Lankan cricketers narrowly escaped a deadly attack on Tuesday morning when terrorists ambushed the bus carrying them to the Qadhafi Stadium for the third day`s play of the second Test.
Some evidence gathered by police suggested that it could actually have been an attempt at kidnapping the Lankan players.
At least seven people — six policemen escorting the Sri Lankans and the driver of another van in the convoy — were killed and another 20 injured in the attack near the Liberty roundabout, 500 metres from the stadium.
Seven Sri Lankan players were among the wounded.
Two of them — Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavithana — were hospitalised for a few hours with bullet injuries. Doctors later reported they were out of danger. The other injured players were skipper Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Ajantha Mendis, Thilina Thushara and Suranga Lokumal. All escaped with minor injuries.
Police claimed that at least 12 gunmen, who appeared to be highly trained and used rocket launchers, hand-grenades and sophisticated automatic guns in the operation lasting about 30 minutes, were involved in the attack. The attackers melted into the city after the strike.
Although the Gulbarg police station is only a couple of minutes` walk from the roundabout, police reached the scene only after the assailants` escape.
The attackers commandeered a car and a rickshaw to escape.
Police found a large quantity of hand-grenades, rocket launchers, suicide jackets, plastic explosives, time devices, Kalashnikov rifles, pistols and walkie-talkies left at different places in a radius of a few furlongs by the attackers.
Police and bomb disposal squad seized three hand-grenades, a time device and a Kalashnikov from the backyard of the house of a retired army officer and several other weapons from near the Alfatah Departmental Store in Makka Colony and other nearby places.
They also seized a red car (LRM-7030) parked near the Liberty Park with a huge-quantity of grenades and Kalashnikovs.
The large arms cache indicated that the attackers were prepared to hold out law enforcers for a long-drawn standoff and strengthened the belief that they wanted to hijack the bus carrying the Lankan team.
If an ambush, however bloody, was all that the attackers were looking for, they did not need to burden themselves with all the weap
ons they were carrying. Even though the police displayed the seized weapons, they refused to comment on the possibility of it being an attempted kidnapping.
Television images of two terrorists carrying backpacks stacked with weapons and ammunition and firing shots at the convoy from the roundabout showed that the attack bore striking similarities to the Mumbai terror raid of November last year. Many politicians, analysts and security officials were quick to blame the assault on India.
Sri Lanka called off the tour immediately after the attack and sent a special plane to carry its team back home later on Tuesday. The cricketers were airlifted by a Pakistan Air Force helicopter first to a PAF mess in Lahore and later to the airport.The terrorists were apparently in the complete know of the schedule of the team`s arrival at the stadium and had been waiting for the convoy for some time.
In the aftermath, police cordoned off roads leading to the scene of the crime for several hours to preserve and collect evidence. The upscale Liberty Market remained closed for the day.
The assailants launched the attack on the convoy by simultaneously propelling a rocket, tossing a couple of hand-grenades and opening indiscriminate fire on the vehicles, police said. Both the rocket and grenades missed the target. The elite police escorting the Sri Lankans retaliated, giving time to the driver of the bus carrying the players to speed up and take them to the safety of the Qadhafi Stadium.
Witnesses said firing by the gunmen was so intense that the police escort could not retaliate properly. The heavy gunfire left the bus, two Elite Force vehicles, a Rescue 1122 ambulance and several shops in a nearby plaza severely damaged.
“The first explosion was so deafening that it shook the windows of my house,” said a woman.
The ambush left many question marks on the security arrangements for the visiting cricketers. Former Pakistani Test cricketers and analysts wondered as to why the government had failed to take elaborate, fool-proof measures for the protection of the Sri Lankans in spite of a looming danger of terrorism.
Police and the provincial home department insisted that they had taken every step to protect the guests.
Capital City Police Officer Haji Habibur Rehman said the provincial government had been given information by intelligence agencies in January that Indian intelligence agency RAW could try to attack the Sri Lankan team at Lahore.
He said the identity of the suspects was yet to be ascertained and an investigation had been launched to track them.
Punjab police chief Khawaja Khalid Farooq had earlier denied that police had been given warnings about the attack as early as January.
Noor Wahid, a security guard at a nearby restaurant, said at least five armed men descended on a small road leading to the Liberty Park and opened fire on him and other guards. “We saved our lives by taking shelter behind the restaurant gate,” he said.
Another witness, Haji Fazal Rehman, said the gunmen fired at his pick-up and smashed its windowpanes while making the escape.
Police claimed that they had taken into custody from Nadeem Shaheed Chowk, in Cantonment, a rickshaw driver whose three-wheeler had been used by two gunmen to flee from the scene.
“Two men asked me to drop them at the Lorry Adda, but got off in Cantt when I expressed inability to take them there because of traffic jams,” an investigator quoted the rickshaw driver as having told police.
The investigator said several people suspected to be connected with the assault had been picked up from Model Town and Gulbarg.
Police failure to catch the assailants or trace them sent a wave of panic through the city, with many fearing more strikes. “We have more than 12 terrorists roaming freely in the city. Where would they turn up next, nobody knows,” a man said.
The attacks gave the Pakistan Muslim League-N and other opposition parties an opportunity to argue that the terrorists had succeeded only because the provincial administration and police were busy making plans to suppress their protests and force provincial legislators to switch loyalties.