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01 March 2024

Sri Lanka team welcomed home after Lahore attack

Members of the Sri Lankan cricket team, from left, Mahela Jayawardene , Chamara Kapugedera and Tharanga Paranawitana arrive at Bandaranayake International Airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP)


Sri Lanka's wounded, shaken cricketers flew home Wednesday to tearful hugs from their relatives, saying they were lucky to be alive after a deadly attack on their team bus in Pakistan.

Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge welcomed the side home amid tight security at Colombo airport, itself a target of terror attacks in the past and where fans were not allowed in.

Spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan said they had a "narrow escape" and at one point wondered if he would ever come out alive. "There were just these images of life flashing through my mind - all the while bullets were being sprayed at our bus, people around me were shouting. I am glad to be back," he said, hugging his wife.

Star batsman Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavithana, who were both treated in hospital in Pakistan, were among the first of the 25-member touring party to be brought out and taken to a private medical facility in Colombo, a senior official said. "Both of them may need further treatment and surgery," said Geethanjana Mendis, a sports medicine specialist who travelled to Pakistan to assess the wounded before their return flight.

He said the entire team needed medical evaluation while some would require more treatment, although none of the injuries is seen as life threatening. Spin bowler Ajantha Mendis left the chartered A320 aircraft with a plaster behind his right ear.

A total of seven players and an assistant coach were hurt in Tuesday's gun and grenade ambush in the Pakistani city of Lahore which left eight policemen and two civilians dead. Vice-captain Kumar Sangakkara, another of the wounded, told reporters that the players were "relieved to be back home."

The parents of injured medium pace bowler Suranga Lakmal hugged and cried when their son walked out of the airport lounge. "He is our only son. We have not eaten anything since we heard the news," his father Albert said.

Before leaving Pakistan, skipper Mahela Jayawardene extended his gratitude to their driver for possibly saving the team, who were being escorted to the Gaddafi stadium for the third day's play of the second Test. "We owe the team bus driver our lives for his remarkable bravery in the face of direct gunfire," he said in a statement. "Had he not had the courage and presence of mind to get the bus moving after the initial attack then we'd have been a far easier target for the terrorists." Jayawardene expressed the team's "deepest and heartfelt condolences" to the families of those killed.

Sri Lanka had agreed to tour Pakistan despite the high security risk. They replaced India, who refused to go amid heightened tensions in the wake of the deadly Mumbai assault in November which Indian authorities blame on a Pakistani militant group. Sri Lanka won a three-match one-day series 2-1 in February, when everything passed off without mishap.

They returned to play a two-Test series, drawing the first game in Karachi last week in what was Pakistan's first Test match in 14 months. Team Manager Brendon Kuruppu said they had never before faced any security problems in Pakistan and the players were left shocked. "Cricket takes a back seat when such incidents happen," he added.

Assistant coach Paul Farbrace told the BBC they feared for their lives. "There was a lot of shouting and people hitting the floor and when I got to the floor I realised the blood that I could see was coming from me - luckily superficial wounds," Farbrace said. "You're just praying that one of the bullets doesn't hit you and somehow you get out of it. "At one point when the bus was stopped I heard a lot of shouting for the driver to move the bus. At that point you realise you're a sitting duck and anything can happen around you."

Although there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack, some Sri Lankan officials fear a possible link with a military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels in the island's north.