/ 6 March 2009

Pakistan ‘can’t rule out foreign hand’ in cricket attack

Pakistan’s interior ministry chief said on Friday he could not rule out foreign involvement in the Sri Lankan cricket attack, as press speculation mounted that home-grown militants were to blame.

Six Pakistani police and two civilians were killed on Tuesday when gunmen ambushed the team en route to a Test match in the eastern city of Lahore. Seven Sri Lankan cricketers and a coach were among 19 people wounded.

”I cannot rule out [involvement of a] foreign hand in the incident,” Rehman Malik told reporters in Lahore.

He was asked if Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could be linked to the attacks — which have triggered serious international concern about Pakistan’s ability to combat Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked militants.

”We are keeping this aspect in mind,” said Malik.

Local newspapers on Friday suggested that preliminary investigations pointed to the involvement of home-grown militant outfits, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which India blamed for the Mumbai attacks.

Malik’s comments appeared to contradict remarks widely attributed to him on Thursday, denying any foreign involvement in the attack.

”We have not found any leads suggesting the involvement of any religious elements,” Malik said.

But he refused to divulge information about how the probe was progressing. Up to 12 men attacked the convoy of officials, coaches and players, firing automatic weapons, grenades and a rocket launcher as the vehicles approached Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium on Tuesday. All the attackers fled without trace.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault.

Pakistan’s most famous fan prays cricket will return
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s most famous cricket fan on Friday said he was praying for the game’s survival in the troubled country, after the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers threatened its isolation from the world stage.

Sufi Abdul Jalil, famous as Uncle Cricket — or Chacha Cricket in Urdu — lives for the game and says he wants to die serving it.

”Cricket is my life, my passion. I can live without food, but I can’t live without cricket. I pray that the situation in my country improves, so that cricket doesn’t go away. I can only pray.”

Some believe Tuesday’s attacks on the Sri Lankan team and match officials, which left eight Pakistanis dead and injured seven Sri Lankan players, have buried Pakistan’s chances of hosting international cricket for years.

Pakistan’s March cricket tour of Bangladesh was postponed by the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) on Thursday while the International Cricket Council has raised doubts over whether the country can still co-host the 2011 World Cup.

But Chacha Cricket is adamant things will improve soon.

”What happened is tragic,” Jalil told AFP on Friday. ”My heart goes out to the Sri Lankan players and to all those who died in the incident. It should not have happened at all, but it’s Allah’s will.”

Jalil is a familiar sight at all international matches that Pakistan play — home or abroad — and was on his way to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore for the third day of the second Test when gunmen struck.

Having watched the first two days’ play, he travelled ”back to my home town Sialkot to bring cakes and sweets for Sri Lankan opener Malinda Warnapura’s father, Upali, who watched the match with me in the stands”, recalled Jalil.

”But on my way to Lahore I was told about the incident. No one allowed me to go to the stadium as they said it would be a security hazard. I was left stranded,” said Jalil.

The 60-year-old hails from the same town as former captain Shoaib Malik and worked in the forestry department in the United Arab Emirates until 1998.

It was in Sharjah where he developed a serious interest in the game.

”My first match as a spectator was in Lahore in 1969 when England came to Pakistan but I got into overseas matches involving Pakistan and India in Sharjah,” reminisces Jalil.

Once he retired, Jalil returned to his country. He became more prominent at cricket grounds when he started dressing in traditional Pakistan green — from head to toe — and permanently carries a national flag in his hand.

His loud patriotic slogans ”jeevay, jeevay Pakistan [long live Pakistan] prompted the Pakistan Cricket Board to sponsor him on tour in England, India and South Africa.

”Once 70 000 people heeded my call in Pakistan,” he said in reference to his ability to whip up the enthusiasm of cricket crowds.

”Even Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan could not muster that much support, so I owe this to cricket.” — AFP