'It was like natural instinct'

2009-03-04 08:53

Colombo - Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene says living and working in a country troubled by civil war helped save his team as it came under fire from gunmen in the eastern Pakistan city of Lahore.

The Sri Lankan team returned on a special charter flight early on Wednesday to the capital Colombo, where the exhausted-looking players had an emotional private reunion with their families. One of the players was taken from the airport to a hospital in Colombo.

Jayawardene said his players' immediate reaction in taking cover when gunmen attacked their team convoy on Tuesday could be attributed to the situation in his country.

"We have been brought up in a background of terrorist activities," Jayawardene told reporters at the airport. "We are used to hearing, seeing these things. Firing, bombings. So we ducked under our seats when the firing began. It was like natural instinct."

At least a dozen men had ambushed the Sri Lankan team with rifles, grenades and rocket launchers, converging on the squad's convoy as it drove through a traffic circle near Gaddafi Stadium on its way to play the third day of the second test against Pakistan.

Even though the bus was peppered with 25 bullet holes, none of the players were killed. Seven players and a coach sustained injuries, none life-threatening, but six policemen and a driver died. An umpire was being treated for serious wounds.

"We were all tucked under the seats," said Jayawardene, who was cut on the foot by debris. "Our guys were getting hurt and screaming but we couldn't help each other. We were just hoping that we will not get hit.

"None of us thought that we would come alive out of the situation."

Pakistan published photos of two of the militants who ambushed Sri Lanka's cricket team and has offered a reward for help tracking the gunmen.

The attack bore many similarities to last year's three-day hostage drama in India's financial capital Mumbai.

Working in pairs, the attackers in Lahore carried walkie-talkies and 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, an official said.

None of the gunmen were killed and all apparently escaped after a 15-minute gunbattle with the convoy's security detail.

The attack was among the highest-profile terrorist strikes on a sports team since the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian militants killed 11 Israeli athletes.

Pakistan's Punjab provincial government took out advertisements in newspapers Wednesday offering a $125,000 reward.

Veteran offspinner Muttiah Muralitharan told reporters on his return to Colombo he saw his life flash before his eyes when the bus came under attack.

"All the while bullets were being sprayed at our bus, people around me were shouting," he said. "I am glad to be back."

A sentiment echoed by Jayawardene.

"I'm very happy that I could see my family, and come back to Sri Lanka in one piece," he said. "Every breath I take I'm glad that I can take it without a problem."