New Zealand set for departure after Pakistan tour cancellation

Islamabad (AFP) –


New Zealand's cricket squad were preparing to depart Islamabad on Saturday, a day after abandoning their tour of Pakistan over a security alert that left the South Asian nation devastated.

The move is a massive setback to Pakistan, which has been trying to revive tours by foreign sides after home internationals were suspended in the aftermath of a 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan team.

A Pakistani official, who requested anonymity, said the team and support staff had been escorted to the capital's airport from their five-star hotel in bulletproof buses.

"A chartered flight came from the United Arab Emirates to collect the New Zealand squad," said the official, who added they were due to depart Saturday evening.

The Pakistan Cricket Board chief meanwhile urged his players to "vent your frustration and anger by performing well", accepting that Pakistani cricket was facing "a lot of pressure".

"The point is that we have experienced this before but we have moved forward, we have resilience, we have power and that's because of fans and because of our cricket team," newly elected Ramiz Raja said in a statement on Saturday.

"If we can't come out of this pressure, we have enough confidence and power that on our domestic level (that) we can make a world beating team," he added.

New Zealand Cricket called off their first tour of Pakistan in 18 years just as the first one-day international was due to start in Rawalpindi on Thursday.

They had been due to play three ODIs and five Twenty20 internationals on the tour.

"Following an escalation in the New Zealand Government threat levels for Pakistan, and advice from New Zealand Cricket security advisors on the ground, it has been decided the BLACKCAPS will not continue with the tour," New Zealand Cricket said in a statement.

But the country's cricket officials threw a veil of secrecy over the security threat that forced the abrupt cancellation.

- 'Player safety paramount' -

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Pakistan's leader Imran Khan that the team feared an attack outside the stadium, according to Pakistan's Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad.

In a brief public statement, Ardern said her government supported the cancellation as "player safety has to be paramount".

A New Zealand Cricket official told AFP no further comment was planned "at this juncture", and would not say if the security threat that caused the cancellation had been passed to the Pakistan Cricket Board or any other cricket-playing nation.

The side previously cut short a tour in 2002 after a suicide bombing outside their team hotel in Karachi killed 14 people, including 11 French naval engineers.

Pakistan, deeply frustrated by the last-minute withdrawal, has denied any security threats.

Security in the country has improved dramatically over the past few years but militant groups still operate along the border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan have only hosted South Africa, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe since the 2009 attacks.

The country now faces the risk of further tour cancellations.

The England and Wales Cricket Board said they will decide on next month's tours for thier men's and women's teams by Sunday.

A Cricket Australia spokesman said they are monitoring the situation and gathering information from security experts before deciding to tour Pakistan in February and March next year.

Australia have not toured Pakistan since 1998 over security fears.