Attack on Sri Lankan Cricket Team: Echoes of Mumbai?

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Mohsin Raza / Reuters

A bullet hole is seen on a window of the bus that was carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team when they were attacked by gunmen in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 3

In a commando-style operation, a dozen gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in the heart of Lahore, Pakistan's cultural and political hub, at 8:45 Tuesday morning. The attackers fired rockets, grenades and multiple rounds of ammunition at the team's bus and the police escorting it, killing eight people and injuring six. To some eyewitnesses, it was last November's Mumbai attacks replayed on Pakistani soil. (See pictures of this terrorist attack.)

Amid thick morning traffic in Lahore's Liberty Square, the gunmen ambushed the bus as it approached the Gaddaffi cricket stadium. "I heard the attack and spun around," recalls Abdul Ghani Butt, 30, a foreign-currency dealer who was on his way to work at the time. "It was just like the Mumbai attacks. They were young, about 25-to-30 years of age, coming from different directions. Some were clean-shaven, others bearded. They were wearing tracksuits and carried backpacks. One of the men then put down his rocket launcher and pulled out a rifle. He changed the magazine so quickly that it could only have been done by a professional. The others were walking around so calmly, across the grass in the roundabout." (See pictures of the Mumbai attacks.)

The gunmen killed five policemen, two bystanders and the bus driver. Six members of the Sri Lankan cricket team were injured. Two of the cricketers were shot, while others sustained minor injuries from flying debris. The reserve umpire for the ongoing test match, Ahsan Raza, a Pakistani, is in critical condition. "It was horrifying," Nadeem Ghouri, the Pakistani umpire, told Reuters. "There were bullets flying around us and we didn't know what was happening. When the firing started, we all went down on the floor of the coach. Our driver was killed instantly from a shot from the front."

On the edge of the roundabout lies one of the half a dozen police vehicles that were escorting the bus from the team's hotel to the stadium. The windscreen of the blue Punjab Elite Police pickup bears six large bullet holes. The roof is badly damaged. On the driver's seat, amid shards of glass, is a blood-stained cap belonging to one of the dead police officers. Blood is smeared across the steering wheel, and forms small pools in the backseat. Bullet casings lie nearby. According to eyewitnesses and police accounts, the police officers and the attackers were locked in a gun battle for 15 minutes. "One of the police commandos came out into the open and began firing at them," says Mohammed Waqas, 25, a travel agent who was also on his way to work. "I don't think he survived. The other commandos used their cars for protection. But the gunmen escaped."

Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab who took control of the province last week, says a search operation is underway. "It was a similar type of attack to Mumbai," he tells TIME. "They were well armed and well trained. They had rocket launchers, grenades and Kalashnikovs. They were also well trained in the use of explosives. The police have discovered a vehicle that was used by the gunmen that was packed with explosives. The engine was running with the key in. If anyone turned off the car, it would have blown up. We are not afraid — the people of Lahore are not afraid. We'll get the bastards who did this."

Police say they have arrested suspects in the Model Town area of Lahore, but none of those detained are believed to be gunmen. The Interior Ministry has announced that an investigation is underway.

The sophistication of the operation raises questions not only about the identity of its authors, but about the failure to afford the visiting cricket team sufficient protection. Foreign teams, including Australia, England and India, have all refused to play in Pakistan in recent years because of security fears. But Pakistani authorities have insisted that security is fine. It will be harder to do that now. "The happiness and joy that cricket brought to our country has been destroyed by the violence we saw today," says Ali Shujaat, owner of the Lahore Cricket Academy. "We have got infrastructure worth millions of dollars, and we now see no future for professional cricket in Pakistan. Who will play us now?"

"This was a major lapse of security," cricket legend turned politician Imran Khan tells TIME. "Having guaranteed the Sri Lankan team security, they failed to provide them even with the type of security given to a government minister. This could have been a mammoth tragedy. If the grenades hit them inside the bus, it could have blown up the whole team. And astonishingly, how were they allowed to get away?"

See pictures of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

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