In the morning of 3 March 2009, amid thick morning traffic in Lahore’s Liberty Square, half a dozen police vehicles were escorting the Sri Lankan cricket team bus from their hotel to the Gaddaffi Cricket Stadium where they were to play the third day of the second Test against Pakistan. Suddenly they were ambushed by a group of 12 heavily-armed gunmen. In a commando-style operation, the attackers fired rockets, grenades and multiple rounds of ammunition at the team's bus and the police escorting it, killing 8 people and injuring 5 Sri Lankan players and an assistant coach. Amongst the dead were 5 policemen, 2 bystanders and the bus driver. Two of the cricketers were shot, while others sustained minor injuries from flying debris. The reserve umpire for the ongoing test match, Ahsan Raza, a Pakistani, was left in critical condition.
It was horrifying. There were bullets flying around us and we didn't know what was happening. When the firing started, we all went down on the floor of the coach. Our driver was killed instantly from a shot from the front.
Nadeem Ghouri, the Pakistani umpire
It was just like the Mumbai attacks [November 2008]. They were young, about 25-to-30 years of age, coming from different directions. Some were clean-shaven, others bearded. They were wearing tracksuits and carried backpacks. One of the men then put down his rocket launcher and pulled out a rifle. He changed the magazine so quickly that it could only have been done by a professional.
The windscreen of the blue Punjab Elite Police pickup bears six large bullet holes. The roof is badly damaged. On the driver's seat, amid shards of glass, is a blood-stained cap belonging to one of the dead police officers. Blood is smeared across the steering wheel, and forms small pools in the backseat. Bullet casings lie nearby. According to eyewitnesses and police accounts, the police officers and the attackers were locked in a gun battle for 15 minutes. "One of the police commandos came out into the open and began firing at them," says Mohammed Waqas, 25, a travel agent who was also on his way to work. "I don't think he survived. The other commandos used their cars for protection. But the gunmen escaped".
It was a similar type of attack to Mumbai. They were well armed and well trained. They had rocket launchers, grenades and Kalashnikovs. They were also well trained in the use of explosives. The police have discovered a vehicle that was used by the gunmen that was packed with explosives. The engine was running with the key in. If anyone turned off the car, it would have blown up. We are not afraid — the people of Lahore are not afraid. We'll get the bastards who did this.
Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab who took control of the province last week, says a search operation is underway
The dramatic scene was captured live on TV. A local television channel captured glimpses of the attackers mounting the attack. Prominent in the footage is a pair of men moving around together, crouching on their knees as they open fire. One appears to be a clean-shaven man young enough to be a teenager who is wearing a T shirt, jeans and sneakers. His companion is a taller man who appears to be in his 20s, wearing a brown shalwar kameez (traditional Pakistani dress) and a beard. One senior police officer in Lahore was quoted by the local media as speculating that the men were Pashtun, the ethnic group dominant in Pakistan's militancy-wracked North-West Frontier Province and parts of Afghanistan.
The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in the heart of Lahore, Pakistan's cultural and political hub, brought instant condemnation both nationally and internationally. Cricket is sacrilegious in Pakistan. Thus, such an audacious attack on the "true national religion" caused a national uproar. Candlelight vigils were held not only at the scene of the attack but also across the country. Entire newspapers were dedicated to coverage and editorials lambasting the attackers in an unusually united voice. Television anchors quivered in anger as they described the precipitous, and understandable, departure of the Sri Lankan team after the seven wounded players were released from the hospital.
They were our guests. We are very sorry about this. It's really shocking.
This was a major lapse of security. Having guaranteed the Sri Lankan team security, they failed to provide them even with the type of security given to a government minister. This could have been a mammoth tragedy. If the grenades hit them inside the bus, it could have blown up the whole team. And astonishingly, how were they [i.e. gunmen] allowed to get away?
Imran Khan, cricket legend turned politician
Several teams had already refused to tour Pakistan due to safety and security concerns. Foreign teams have refused to play in Pakistan in recent years citing the Pakistani authorities failure to afford the visiting cricket team sufficient protection. Australia, England and New Zealand pulled out of matches in 2008 whilst the ICC also move the Champions Trophy scheduled to be held in September of that year out of the country. However, the Pakistani authorities insisted that security was fine - until the March attack on the Sri Lankan team. In fact, India were originally scheduled to play Pakistan in Test match in 2009 but they boycotted the tour early March following the Mumbai attacks. It was then Sri Lanka "graciously stepped in to save international cricket in Pakistan".
The happiness and joy that cricket brought to our country has been destroyed by the violence we saw today . We have got infrastructure worth millions of dollars, and we now see no future for professional cricket in Pakistan. Who will play us now?
Ali Shujaat, owner of the Lahore Cricket Academy
An investigation on the horrific attack was commenced immediately with the sophistication of the operation raising question about the true identity of authors. Both the police and the general public suspected the attackers to be members of a terrorist group.
In the wave of terrorism attacks that have scarred Pakistan over the past two years, the perpetrators have normally used improvised explosive devices, bomb-laden vehicles and individual suicide bombers. A full-frontal assault is new. The resemblance it bears to the Mumbai attacks, with young men carrying backpacks and openly brandishing their weapons, suggests to some analysts the possible involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group based near Lahore.
Others are pointing to the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Kashmiri separatist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which has bases in southern Punjab. "My own assessment is that it is a Pakistani militant group," says retired general turned analyst Talat Masood. "Whether it is Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed, I can't say." Sri Lankan officials say the Tamil Tigers, who are behind an insurgency in their own country, are not believed to be responsible.
The brazen nature of the attack and its high-profile targets will sink Pakistan's reputation further, analysts say, driving away foreign investment and delivering a blow to the country's much-celebrated national sport. The Pakistani rupee and the main stock exchange both dipped at the news. "It's a very serious incident that escalates the present state of affairs," says Masood, the retired general. "It gives an idea of how the frontiers of terrorism are expanding in Pakistan. It also shows how Pakistan is vulnerable. It is no longer capable of hosting international events".
The attack comes at a sensitive time for Pakistan, and Punjab in particular. The country's largest and wealthiest province was plunged into turmoil last week after its most popular politician, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was barred from holding elected office by the Supreme Court in a controversial ruling. The decision sparked angry protests across the province and opened up a major rift with the government. Sharif has held political rallies across Punjab, urging supporters to join this month's lawyer-led "long march" to Islamabad to demand the reinstatement of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Over the weekend, the government staged a vast counterdemonstration in the port city of Karachi. Political analysts fear that the fresh phase of political uncertainty will consume politicians' energies and provide a distraction from the unremitting advance of Islamist militancy.
In a sign of the growing threat, militants have crossed the Indus River from the northwest in recent weeks to mount attacks in the Punjabi towns of Mianwali and Bhakkar. Lahore itself was long considered removed from the threat, not suffering its first suicide bombing until January 2008. Since then, it has seen a spate of major bombings, including attacks on the Naval College and the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency.
As far as terror attacks go in Pakistan, the damage was relatively minor. The 12 terrorists, divided into teams of two, were well-trained and armed with grenades, rocket launchers and automatic weapons. Like the Mumbai attackers, they carried backpacks filled with extra ammunition and explosives. But where the comparison doesn't work in scale and numbers - 165 died in the Mumbai attacks - the damage to the national psyche may be similar.
Mumbai has always been the heartbeat of India. An attack on that city is an assault not just on a financial capital but on a national cultural identity seen through the prism of Bollywood movies and on a pluralistic ideal embodied in its diverse masses. Pakistan has no such geographic center. Its cities are defined by their ethnic makeup and their provincial politics. So an attack on one location rarely resonates beyond regional boundaries. But an attack on cricket is a body blow that will not so easily be shrugged off. Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricket star turned politician, scoffed at the Australians when they decided not to play in Pakistan last year. No terrorist would dare threaten the one thing all Pakistanis hold sacred, Khan reasoned, for fear of the inevitable backlash. Sadly and tragically, Khan has now been proved wrong.
When Pakistanis find something unjust or unsporting, they like to say, "It's not cricket". The Lahore attacks were not cricket. Now, perhaps, someone will be moved to do something about it.
TIME magazine (2009)
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) appealed for calm and requested the ICC to give the country more time settle the security concerns.
It would be too unjust to doubt Pakistan's ability to host the 2011 World Cup in the wake of terrorists attack on the Sri Lankan team.
I have taken up the matter with the ICC and would also request the international cricket community not to make hasty decisions and wait for a year at least to judge Pakistan's credentials as a host of international matches.
What happened on Tuesday came as shock to the PCB and the whole nation. We would do all we can to save the future by making the international cricketing community realise Pakistan's eagerness to host international cricketing events.
Ijaz Butt, Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB)
However, Pakistan’s bids to salvage its hope of holding the tournament were dashed when the ICC stripped it off the right to host the prestigious event. Their 14 matches were allocated to the other co-hosting countries.
It is a regrettable decision (but) our number one priority is to create certainty and...deliver a safe, secure and successful event. The uncertainty created by events in Pakistan created a huge question mark over our ability to do just that.
It is extremely regrettable that the board has had to take this decision given the passion the people of Pakistan have for the game of cricket and for the ICC Cricket World Cup. It is highly unlikely that we will have the security clearance between now and the start date in 2011. You can be certain that the ICC directive team is considering the burden of costs and loss of revenue the Pakistan cricket board faces.
We are determined that Pakistan should not be isolated, it is a very important member of the International Cricket Council, possessing several of the world's greatest cricketers.
David Morgan, ICC president (2009)
Pakistan Cricket Board reacted to the fatal blow by requesting the ICC to orchestrate a swap deal with Australia and New Zealand by giving them the 2011 world cup and the four Asian nations (including Pakistan) the 2015 tournament. The PCB pointed out that the security fears had extended to across the entire region and was not limited to Pakistan alone. The tense political relations between India and Pakistan, especially in light of the Mumbai attack when the England cricket team was in the country, and the long civil war in Sri Lanka added credence to their case.
Both proposals were rejected by the ICC.