Attack on cricketers shows Pakistan faces emboldened militants

March 4th, 2009 - 1:19 pm ICT by IANS  

Benazir BhuttoIslamabad, March 4 (DPA) The brazen terrorist ambush targeting the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore came as a shocking reminder of the threat posed to Pakistan by ever bolder Islamist militants.

Recent years have seen the Islamic country endure dozens of suicide attacks and roadside bombings that have killed thousands, including former premier Benazir Bhutto.

But the attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team seemed to turn a brutal new page as around a dozen terrorists made their getaway after action graphically captured by TV cameras.

Armed with assault rifles, hand grenades and a rocket launcher, they targeted the bus carrying Sri Lankan team to Gaddafi stadium on a busy street in the centre of around a city of more than six million and killed six policemen and a civilian.

The Sri Lankan team, with six players injured, narrowly escaped a possible hostage situation or cold-blooded executions, not least because of the bravery of their Pakistani driver.

Mohammad Khalil drove off in a hail of bullets after a rocket missed his bus - but the incident showed the vulnerability of Pakistani law enforcers against the militants.

“A tall bearded man in shalwar qameez (traditional dress) came out of a white-coloured car and fired straight at us,” Khalil told reporters in Lahore as he stood by the bullet-riddled bus.

“As the rocket missed us, a short person also appeared on the scene and lobbed a hand grenade that went underneath the vehicle. The occupants started shouting in panic and one of the players yelled Go! Go! - so I swiftly drove off towards the stadium.”

TV footage showed a youthful attacker walking towards an injured traffic warden and mercilessly shooting him dead.

Defence analyst Hassan Askari, a former visiting professor at New York’s Columbia University, said the militants “have shown the government that they are quite effective, mobile and can take on the state”.

He added: “It is unbelievable. We have never seen anything bolder than this here in Pakistan. Sri Lanka is not even a country that has forces in Afghanistan.

“An attack on its players is just a strong message for the Pakistani government, which now needs to to go all out against the militants to restore the writ of the state.”

Pakistan, which supported Taliban emergence in the late 1990s in Afghanistan, joined the US-led international fight against terrorism following the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.

But it has reluctantly acted against Islamic extremists launching cross border attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.

As a result, Taliban militants have gained control over large areas in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) that borders Afghanistan, based barely one-and-a half hours’ drive from Islamabad.

Their influence is spreading in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and richest province, after issuing bans in the region on music, female education and men shaving.

The Pakistani government has appeared to yield to the militants by signing peace deals with them, such as that signed in the restive Swat region, where the government last month accepted the militants’ demand for the introduction of Islamic Shariat law.

One reason for Pakistan’s reluctance to take action against the Taliban springs from the old strategic theory, still popular among country’s armed forces and diplomats, that the Taliban ensure the defence of Pakistan’s eastern border against old rival India.

The two countries have fought three wars since their independence in 1947 - two over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, over which both India and Pakistan lay claim.

Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have previously supported Kashmir-based militant organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is believed to have been behind the carnage in the Indian financial hub of Mumbai in November.

This approach, ingrained strongly in the national psyche, has prompted Pakistani politicians to blame Indian intelligence agencies for whatever ill goes on in the homeland.

But the militants’ strategy this time might have back-fired. Most Pakistanis adore cricket, and the attack on Sri Lanka’s team might lead to a clear estrangement between them and the extremists.

“It’s shocking news for cricket-lovers in Pakistan. We strongly condemn the attack,” said Shoeeb Bokhari, a shopkeeper in Islamabad, summing up the feelings of millions.

“Pakistan’s blaming of foreign forces would not resolve the problem that is home-grown,” said Askari.

“The Pakistani state needs to make up its mind whether it wants to deal with them hard or just make agreements with them. This is going to determine the future of the country. Otherwise, we are going to lose the country to the extremists, who are determined to take over.”

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