Did Pakistan attackers plan to take cricket team hostage?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 4, 2009 

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities are investigating whether the gunmen who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team Tuesday in Lahore had equipped themselves with weapons, suicide vests and food in a plan to hold the squad hostage in its bus.

"From the inventory we have recovered, it seems they did not just mean to ambush the cavalcade," Mushtaq Sukhera, the head of the Lahore police force's investigations department, said in an interview with McClatchy. "It all suggests that they had planned something else. Otherwise, why were they carrying all these things?"

The assailants, who wore bulky backpacks, were equipped with enough arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies to hold out for several days, if not longer, police said. The men had rocket-propelled grenade launchers, meaning that they were as heavily armed as the men who laid siege to Mumbai, India, for three days in November. They also had bandages and antiseptics that could be used to treat injuries.

In each backpack, police found a pound of almonds, a pound of dried fruit, cookies and water bottles, Sukhera said. This could have kept the men going, perhaps for days.

Although Sukhera wouldn't speculate on a possible hostage-taking plan, other police officers, who insisted on anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak, said that the men might have planned to board the bus and don the suicide vests that some were carrying, which would have enabled them to hold the entire team captive.

The quick wit of the bus driver, who managed to speed the bus away, apparently averted a hostage situation. As the bus departed, the terrorists dumped their arms and supplies and left the scene.

The gunmen opened fire on the Sri Lankan team and its police escort early Tuesday as they approached Lahore's cricket stadium, killing eight people, including six police officers. After a gun battle with police that lasted up to 30 minutes, the terrorists left the spot and vanished.

Police detained about 50 people Wednesday, according to local news media, but the reports indicated that some had only vague connections to the incident.

According to the reports, two men were arrested near the remote city of Rahim Yar Khan, in southern Punjab province, after a telephone SIM card found at the scene was traced to them. Two other men detained in Lahore owned a white car that was used in the attack.

Police issued sketches of four of the attackers, showing men in their early 20s, all clean-shaven or with mustaches.

Security camera images carried on Pakistani television showed the gunmen calmly leaving the scene. Video images showed some of them strolling through the back streets of a nearby market after the attack, still carrying their machine guns. Three of them climbed onto a single motorbike and rode away; the cameras had captured them arriving on the bike earlier. Others jogged away. The footage depicted eight of the assailants; police had put the number of them at 12.

The authorities for the first time Wednesday admitted security lapses. The top official in the Lahore administration, Khusro Pervaiz, said that the "security gaps are very vivid, very clear." He said that the outer cordon of the Sri Lankan team's police escort was missing or didn't respond. He also said that the police escort had used inappropriate vehicles.

A British referee, Chris Broad, who was to officiate in the game that Sri Lanka was to play against Pakistan, lashed out at the security arrangements. He was traveling in a minibus as part of the team's convoy.

"I am extremely angry that we were promised high-level security and in our hour of need that security vanished," Broad told a news conference Wednesday on returning to Britain. "I am extremely fortunate to be here today."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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