LAHORE, Pakistan - A team of heavily armed gunmen, some traveling in rickshaws, ambushed Sri Lanka's national cricket team yesterday as it arrived for a match, killing six police guards and wounding seven players.
The brazen attack heightened fears for the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The assault bore striking similarities to November's three-day hostage drama in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai. Working in pairs, the attackers in Lahore carried walkie-talkies, as well as backpacks stuffed with water, dried fruit, and other high-energy food - a sign they anticipated a protracted siege and may have been planning to take the players hostage. The bus carrying the players sped through the ambush, but the gunmen's preparations indicated they might have been planning to hijack the vehicle, Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said.
All of the gunmen melted away into the teeming city of more than six million. None of the cricket players was killed, though the bus was pocked with bullet holes.
The incident was among the highest-profile attacks on a sports team since the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian extremists killed 11 Israeli team members.
By targeting the country's most popular sport - and the internationally powerful Sri Lankan team - the attack was sure to resonate throughout the region, where cricket has been an obsession since it was introduced by the British during the colonial era.
Sri Lanka's national cricket team is among the top contenders in world cricket tournaments - along with the Indian and Pakistani teams - and a big spectator draw.
The gunmen also drew international attention to the Pakistani government's inability to provide basic security as it battles extremists linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban and faces accusations that it is harboring terrorists.
Even before yesterday, most cricket squads had chosen not to tour Pakistan for security reasons. India and Australia had canceled tours, and New Zealand yesterday called off its planned December tour.
Besides the six police officers, a driver of a vehicle in the convoy also was killed, officials said. Seven Sri Lankan players, a Pakistani umpire, and a coach from Britain were wounded, though none had life-threatening injuries.
Malik said Pakistan was "in a state of war" and vowed to "flush out all these terrorists from this country."
Pakistan has a web of Islamist extremist networks, some with ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which has staged high-profile strikes to destabilize the government and punish it for backing the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The convoy transporting the Sri Lankan team and cricket officials was ringed by police vehicles, but it traveled the same route each day of the five-day Test Match against Pakistan's national team, according to Malik. The attack occurred on the third day of play, just before 9 a.m. local time.
The assailants struck at a traffic circle 300 yards from Gaddafi Stadium downtown. They opened fire with a grenade and a rocket as well as repeated automatic-weapons rounds fired from a white car. Then they attacked from three other locations, witnesses and officials said.
Lahore police chief Haji Habibur Rehman said the attackers arrived in motorized rickshaws and two cars. Police seized weapons abandoned in one of the rickshaws and elsewhere.
The arsenal displayed for journalists included rocket-propelled grenades, pistols, 25 hand grenades, submachine guns, and explosives.
The bus carrying the Sri Lankans sped through the hail of bullets and into the stadium, likely saving lives. With the players shouting "Go! Go!" driver Mohammad Khalil said he maneuvered the bus, its windshield shattered, into the stadium.
Bloodied players were helped off the vehicle and Sri Lankan team captain Mahela Jayawardene shouted: "Get more ambulances in here! Get more ambulances in here," according to Tony Bennet, an Australian cameraman covering the match.
At the traffic circle, the gunmen fought a 15-minute battle with police. Pakistani TV footage showed at least two pairs of gunmen with backpacks firing on the convoy from a stretch of grass, taking cover behind a monument.
"These people were highly trained and highly armed - the way they were holding their guns, the way they were taking aim and shooting at the police," said Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province. He said they "used the same methods . . . as the terrorists who attacked Mumbai."
One extremist group likely to fall under suspicion is Lashkar-e-Taiba, the network blamed for the Nov. 26-28 Mumbai attacks, in which 10 gunmen targeted luxury hotels, a Jewish center, and other sites, killing 164 people.
The group has been targeted by Pakistani authorities since then. Its stronghold is in eastern Pakistan.
In the past, India and Pakistan - which have fought three wars since 1947 - often have blamed each other for attacks on their territories.
While some politicians and retired generals, along with ordinary Pakistanis, hinted at an Indian hand in the Lahore attacks, government leaders and security officials did not.
Any high-level allegations of such action would trigger fresh and possibly dangerous tensions between the countries.
There were no indications that authorities in Pakistan or Sri Lanka suspected Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger separatist rebels, who are being battered in a military offensive at home.