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Pakistani militants 'most likely behind attack'

An investigation into the attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team points to militants with possible ties to al Qa'eda.

ISLAMABAD // An investigation into the attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team in Lahore has found signs that Pakistani militants with possible ties to al Qa'eda were responsible, a senior government official said today. The brazen attack by a dozen gunmen on the team and its police escorts as they drove to the main stadium in Lahore on Tuesday raised new fears about prospects for a nuclear-armed country that some analysts fear could become a failed state.

"The indications are that it was one of our own home-grown groups, with possible linkages abroad," said the government official with knowledge of the investigation. With an economy being kept afloat by an International Monetary Fund loan, Pakistan has been hit by a wave of attacks in recent years, most carried out by militants linked to the Taliban or al Qa'eda opposed to government support for the United States.

The civilian government which came to power a year ago is embroiled in a confrontation with the main opposition party over a court ruling banning its leaders from elected office and forcing the party's government from power in Punjab province. Government critics have blamed the political machinations in Punjab, of which Lahore is capital, for the security failing that allowed the gunmen to attack the Sri Lankans.

More political trouble is looming for the government and the president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Anti-government lawyers backed by opposition parties are due to launch a cross-country protest convoy on March 12 to press for an independent judiciary. Police have rounded up scores of suspects but have yet to announce a breakthrough in their investigation of Tuesday's attack in which seven Pakistanis - six policemen and the driver of a bus carrying match officials - were killed.

Six Sri Lankan players and two team officials were wounded. "It's a tough job. We're connecting the dots. We're making every effort to get to the bottom and hopefully we'll do it," said Salahuddin Niazi, the policeman heading the investigation. "Any word before finalising the investigation will benefit the criminals. Let's finalise it, then we'll be able to point the finger at someone or a group or groups," he said.

The Friday Times newspaper, citing a former high-ranking intelligence official in Punjab, said al Qa'eda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants were responsible for the attack. The group has been behind some of the most audacious attacks in Pakistan in recent years. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, the government official said groups such as the LeJ were highest on the list of suspects.

Some of the explosives carried by the assailants were not available in Pakistan, he said. The official was dismissive of media speculation that old rival India may have been behind the attack as payback for the assault by Pakistani militants on Mumbai in November. The News daily, in an editorial on Saturday, also admonished Pakistani journalists for speculating on Indian involvement without evidence.

"The fact is that any kind of truth will emerge only if we can carry out a proper, impartial investigation ... blind bias will take us nowhere," the News said. The Dawn newspaper said yesterday investigators had ruled out the possibility of involvement by Indian agents or ethnic minority Tamil guerrillas from Sri Lanka. Members of the banned Pakistani-based Lashkar-i-Taiba were emerging as the most likely culprits, it said.

*Reuters

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