LAHORE, Pakistan – A dozen masked gunmen armed with rifles and rocket launchers attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team as it traveled to a match in Pakistan on Tuesday, wounding several players and killing five police officers, officials said.
The assailants ambushed the team's convoy at a traffic circle close to the main sports stadium in the eastern city of Lahore ahead of a match against Pakistan's national team, triggering a 15-minute gunbattle with police guarding the vehicles.
None of the attackers were killed or captured at the scene, said city police chief Haji Habibur Rehman said. Authorities did not speculate on the identities of the attackers or their motives.
TV footage showed gunmen with backpacks apparently the attackers firing at the convoy as they retreated from the scene, with several damaged vehicles and a lone, unexploded grenade lying on the ground.
Pakistan is battling a ferocious insurgency by Islamist militants with links to al-Qaida who have staged high-profile attacks on civilian targets before. Authorities will also be looking possible links to Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger separatist rebels who are being badly hit in a military offensive at home.
The attack took place three months after the Mumbai terror attacks, which were allegedly carried out by Pakistan militants. In the past, nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India have blamed each other for attacks in their territories. Any allegations like that would worsen the already dangerously high tensions between the countries.
A Sri Lankan foreign ministry official said two players Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavitana were hospitalized. He said three more players were slightly injured and that the head coach, Australian Trevor Bayliss, also sustained minor injuries. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Squad member Kumar Sangakkara told Sri Lankan radio station Yes-FM that "all the players are completely out of danger."
"Luckily there's nothing serious and everyone is fine," he said.
Police chief Haji Habibur Rehman said five policemen died in the attack by 12 masked gunmen.
Authorities cancelled the test match and the Lahore governor said the team was flying home.
The attack will surely mean the end of international cricket in Pakistan for months, if not years. Even before, most teams refused to tour the country because of security concerns. It will also have implications on the game's future in South Asia, its most lucrative market.
"It is terrible incident and I am lost for words," said Steve Davis, an Australian who was umpiring the match.
Nadeem Ghauri, a Pakistani umpire who witnessed the attack, said the umpires were behind a bus of Sri Lankan players when suddenly they heard gunshots.
"The firing started at about 8:40 and it continued for 15 minutes," he said, adding "our driver was hit, and he was injured."
A driver of one of the vehicles in the convoy told Pakistan's private Express news channel that he saw a man firing a rocket toward their van and then some one hurled a grenade, but the weapons missed their vehicle.
Most of the violence in Pakistan occurs in its northwest regions bordering Afghanistan, where Taliban and al-Qaida militants have established strongholds. Lahore has not been immune from militant violence, however, and several of its cultural arenas have been the focus of small explosions. At least one attack in recent months in the northwest has occurred next to a sports stadium.
Sri Lanka appeared on the brink of crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels after more than a quarter century of civil war.
In recent months, government forces have pushed the guerrillas out of much of the de facto state they controlled in the north of the Indian Ocean island nation and trapped them in a small patch of land along the coast.
The rebels, who are fighting for an independent state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, are listed as a terror group by the U.S. and E.U. and are routinely blamed for suicide bombings and other attacks targeting civilians.
The rebels rarely launch attacks outside Sri Lanka, though their most prominent attack the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a female suicide bomber took place at an election rally in India in 1991.