Gunmen Strike in Pakistan


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Gunmen in Pakistan attacked vehicles carrying Sri Lanka’s cricket squad Tuesday, killing six policemen and a driver in the latest sign of the government’s weakening grip on the country’s security.

About a dozen men fired assault weapons at the convoy carrying the Sri Lankan team to a match in the cosmopolitan city of Lahore, according to Pakistani and Sri Lankan officials. A bus carrying the players was able to escape into the cricket stadium, while police guards engaged in a gun battle with the attackers.

Sri Lanka Cricketers Shot

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Six Sri Lankan cricketers and their British assistant coach are wounded as gunmen attack their bus as it drives under police escort in the Pakistani city of Lahore. Video courtesy of Reuters.

Seven players, an umpire and a coach were wounded, none with life-threatening injuries, the Associated Press reported.

Lahore’s police chief, Haji Habibur Rehman, said none of the attackers was killed or captured, AP reported.

Police arrested four suspects, but didn’t offer details about who carried out the ambush armed with Kalashnikovs, grenades and rocket launchers. No group claimed responsibility immediately after the attack.

By early afternoon, the Sri Lankan team departed by helicopter from the cricket stadium and announced it was canceling the tour.

“They were our guests,” Pakistan’s Sports Minister Aftab Shah Gilani told NDTV, an Indian channel. “We are very sorry about this. It’s really shocking.”

Reuters

A video grab shows gunmen firing in the direction of a police vehicle in Lahore March 3, 2009.

The incident dealt another blow to a government reeling from security setbacks and other crises. Tuesday’s assault is likely to heighten international worries about the nuclear-armed nation, as it reinforces an impression that the Pakistani government is getting weaker while an Islamic militancy grows stronger, says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and defense analyst who lives in Lahore.

“If Pakistan fails to stop the militant attacks,” he warns, “it will undermine the state’s ability to function.”

Among Pakistan’s panoply of problems: Pro-Taliban and al Qaeda fighters have dug into areas once under government control. Supporters of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif have taken to the streets after a court barred the former prime minister from public office. And the International Monetary Fund has had to rescue Pakistan from bankruptcy, but analysts now worry fresh instability will imperil debt repayments.

The attack also raises questions about the threat Pakistan’s instability poses to other nations. It follows a strike in Mumbai late last year in which more than 170 people were killed, and for which Pakistani nationals have been blamed.

As in the three-day siege in India’s commercial capital, young gunmen in Lahore Tuesday were caught on camera firing automatic weapons and carrying bags over their shoulders. Witnesses said between 12 and 14 gunmen arrived near the cricket stadium early Tuesday morning with guns, grenades and rocket launchers.

The attack occurred at an intersection near the stadium, where the vehicles with the team aboard had to slow down.

Three injured attackers were carried away by fellow gunmen, according to Mushtaq Sukhera, a senior police official in Lahore.

The significance of the attacks drew comparisons to the Mumbai assault. In both countries, the targets were symbols of national strength that have become vulnerable to terrorism. Pakistan is a global cricket power with a huge following of fans, but it has struggled to host foreign teams due to security fears. The rampage that took place in Mumbai’s five-star hotels and high-end restaurants, as well as a Jewish center, struck a blow to the country’s economic success by raising questions about its own internal security.

One casualty of the violence has been South Asia’s vibrant cricket scene. The sport is extremely popular throughout the region, and in the past has helped to ease friction between testy neighbors, particularly India and Pakistan.

After the Mumbai attacks, India canceled a cricket tour to Pakistan, as Indian officials called on the country to dismantle a domestic terror network.

The Sri Lankan government struck a conciliatory stand. On Tuesday, Palitha T.B. Kohona, Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary, recalled that Pakistan’s cricket team had been willing to visit his country when others weren’t because of security worries, and his government had been pleased to reciprocate.

“The game must not be affected by a lunatic fringe,” he said.

—The Islamabad bureau of Dow Jones Newswires contributed to this article.

Write to Peter Wonacott at peter.wonacott@wsj.com

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