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Lahore cricket attackers hunted

LAHORE, Mar 3 – Police were on Wednesday hunting for the gunmen behind a deadly assault on Sri Lanka’s cricket team which has raised new questions on whether Pakistan is losing its war against Islamic militancy.

Six Pakistani police and two civilians were killed in Tuesday’s brazen attack on the team, who were on their way to a Test match in the city of Lahore. Seven Sri Lankan cricketers and a coach were among 19 wounded.

The attack is likely to have ended international cricket in Pakistan for now and has heightened concerns that radical Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are extending their ability to strike targets across the nation.

Police said five people were being questioned but declined to speculate about the identity of the attackers, who opened fire on the team bus with grenades and guns, and then battled security forces before escaping.

The attack was condemned around the world from legends of cricket to the White House.

It was also a serious blow for cricket in Pakistan, where millions follow the game passionately, and deepened the isolation of a country now being shunned by much of the world cricket community.

New Zealand indicated it would call off its November tour of Pakistan, and the International Cricket Council raised doubts whether the country could still co-host the 2011 World Cup .

"I don’t think any international team will be going to Pakistan in the foreseeable future," New Zealand Cricket chief executive Justin Vaughan said.

India, whose team withdrew from a tour of Pakistan on security concerns after Pakistan-based militants were blamed for the Mumbai attacks in November that killed 165 people, said Islamabad was not doing enough to stop militants.

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More than 1,600 people have been killed in attacks here in the last 22 months, and militants have forged a de facto safe haven in the country’s rugged and lawless northwest along the border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence agency has fostered Islamist militant groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan over decades, and there are suspicions that some ISI elements have links to militants inside Pakistan.

Tuesday’s attack was apparently well planned, and Lahore police chief Habib-ur Rehman said anti-personnel mines and two unexploded car bombs were even recovered from the scene.

"The high quantity of weapons recovered from the site of the attack suggest the terrorists were well-prepared and organised," he said.

Sri Lanka’s cricket administrators were criticised for allowing the tour to go ahead by lawmakers and the media Wednesday, as the team’s wounded and shaken players flew home to Colombo on a chartered jet.

Star batsman Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavithana, both wounded by gunshots, were taken to hospital. A specialist who saw them in Pakistan said they may need surgery.

But none of the team injuries are seen as life-threatening, and the players seem to have had a lucky escape. The militants missed when they fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the bus, and several grenades failed to explode.

"There were just these images of life flashing through my mind – all the while bullets were being sprayed at our bus, people around me were shouting," said star bowler Muttiah Muralitharan.

Captain Mahela Jayawardene lauded their driver’s "remarkable bravery" in the face of the attack.

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"Had he not had the courage and presence of mind to get the bus moving after the initial attack, then we’d have been a far easier target for the terrorists," he said.

It was the first deadly direct assault against a sports team in Pakistan and left the world cricket community in shock.

"By targeting something that is so dear to the hearts of most Pakistanis, the one thing that allowed Pakistan normal engagement with the West, this attack has ensured further isolation there," former England captain Mike Atherton said.

"It is no longer safe to play in Pakistan."


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