Pakistani political shake-up faulted in cricket team attack


LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani police had strong intelligence well in advance of Tuesday's brazen terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team but failed to deploy forces along the route, opposition politicians and the Pakistani news media said Tuesday.

About a dozen heavily armed men launched a commando-style assault on the Sri Lankan players at a busy crossroads Tuesday morning, spraying the team bus and its police escort with automatic gunfire and launching grenades.

Eight people, including six police officers, were killed, and 16 wounded, but the visiting team members all survived, with six players and a British coach wounded.

It was the latest terror attack to hit Pakistan, a nuclear-armed U.S. ally, which is under sustained assault from Islamic extremists. President Barack Obama said he was "deeply concerned" about the targeting of the Sri Lankan squad. Top former government officials in Punjab put the blame for the carnage on President Asif Ali Zardari, who last week ordered them as well as the top police officials in the province replaced.

The team's escape from the early morning assault appeared to be due mainly to the quick reaction of players and their fast-thinking bus driver rather than to any police protection.

The Sri Lankans were on a three-mile journey from the team hotel to Lahore's cricket stadium when they approached a large traffic circle close to the destination, the one point where the bus would have to slow down. The gunmen attacked from three directions.

"Four men stepped out from in front of that shopping plaza. There was an explosion and then bullets started flying," said Mohammad Ahmed, a 15-year-old seller of sugarcane juice, who had to run for his life.

"Then two (gun)men came from over there, and two from the other side, all were firing," said Ahmed, pointing to three directions from which he saw the assailants emerge.

The visiting players dove to the floor of the bus and shouted to the driver: "Go, go, go!" The driver sped the bus to the nearby cricket stadium, sparing the team worse injury, witnesses said. The assailants fired two rocket-propelled grenades, and hurled several grenades at the convoy, police and witnesses said.

Television pictures showed young-looking men, brandishing machine guns, running through the area, firing while on the move at police lines. Witnesses said the shooting lasted for up to 30 minutes. The attackers then calmly dumped the backpacks they were carrying, and escaped. They are thought to remain at large. Police later found that the backpacks contained grenades and other ammunition. The attack was reminiscent of the assault on Mumbai in November, again by a gang of fearless armed men.

"I want to say it's the same pattern, the same terrorists who attacked Mumbai," Salman Taseer, the head of the Punjab provincial government, told reporters at the site of the attack. "They are trained criminals. They were not common people."

There appeared to be no police deployed in Lahore to line the route between the hotel and the cricket stadium, where the Sri Lankan team was to play against Pakistan in South Asia's most popular sport. The visiting cricket squad had only a lightly police escort.

The assault comes against the backdrop of a political struggle for control over Pakistan's heartland province. Last week, following a court ruling, President Asif Ali Zardari dismissed the Punjab provincial government, run by the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a political rival to Zardari. The federal government then installed its own administration, under emergency rule from Islamabad, led by Taseer, and replaced the upper ranks of the police and bureaucracy, including the head of the provincial police.

"Intelligence reports said that there might be an attack on the cricket team," said Pervez Rashid, a senior member of dismissed Punjab government. "They made no appropriate security arrangements for the team."

Since the change of government in Pakistan's heartland, Punjab, Sharif and Zardari, who heads the rival Pakistan Peoples Party, have been locked in a bitter war of words. Under Pakistan's federal system, controlling provincial governments provides enormous power.

Pakistani news media publicized a document late Tuesday which appeared to show that local police had warned in writing that the Sri Lankan team might be targeted. The Jan. 22 letter, from a member of the criminal investigation branch to the then provincial police chief, saying it was "learnt" that an attack was planned on the Sri Lankan team, either at their hotel or in transit between the hotel and the sports stadium. Police and administration officials met Jan. 23 to assess the threat and plan protection, according to the media reports.

Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Nawaz Sharif, who had headed the provincial government until its dismissal, said that if Zardari's replacement administration "had not spent all their time planning how to buy up enough members of parliament to form their own government in Punjab, this might never have happened."

Islamabad was quick to dismiss the accusations of negligence.

"It is disturbing that a major Pakistani political party would attempt to score cheap domestic points during such a serious incident," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokesman for Zardari. "This was the Pakistani police at their finest. Officers gave their lives."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent in Pakistan.)


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