By Julien Pretot
CABINDA, Angola (Reuters) – Angola said on Monday it had arrested two people suspected of taking part in an attack on a bus carrying the Togo national soccer team to the African Nations Cup in which two delegation members were killed.
Provincial prosecutor Antonio Nito said in a statement the two suspects belonged to the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) — a heavily militarized oil-producing province geographically separated from northern Angola.
The FLEC, which has being fighting for independence from Angola for over 30 years, claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, which took place shortly after the Togo team’s bus crossed from Congo Republic.
“The two elements of FLEC were captured at the scene of the incident,” Nito said in a statement.
Togo’s team were brought home by their government on Sunday together with the bodies of their assistant coach and media officer to begin three days of mourning.
The bus driver was also killed and Togolese goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale was stable in hospital in Johannesburg after being operated on for serious gunshot wounds, doctors said.
The sports minister and several players said they still hoped a way could be found for them to honor their colleagues’ memories by playing in Africa’s biggest sports tournament.
But the Confederation of African Football was adamant on Monday that if Togo did not turn up to play their first match in Cabinda, they would forfeit their place. “They have never officially told us they are not going to play or they are going to play,” a senior CAF official told Reuters.
The attack has acutely embarrassed the Angolan government, which had declared the FLEC dead and spent $1 billion preparing for a Nations Cup to showcase a gradual recovery from decades of civil war that only ended in 2002.
Experts say the FLEC is riven by factionalism and may have as few as 200 gunmen, largely confined to remote northern Cabinda. But its leadership, based in France, has vowed to carry out more attacks, and Angola has stepped up security.
Rodrigues Mingas, FLEC’s secretary general, said the attack had been aimed not at the Togolese players but at the Angolan security forces at the head of the convoy.
“So it was pure chance that the gunfire hit the players,” he told France 24 television. “We don’t have anything to do with the Togolese and we present our condolences to the African families and the Togo government.”
Togo’s players said the rebels had sprayed gunfire at them for 15 minutes or more, but the accounts have been confused.
Togo’s French coach, Hubert Velud, told the paper L’Equipe: “We were shot at from both sides of the bus, from 10 meters. We owe our lives to the nerves of our driver, who was able to keep driving for a few hundred meters before the army intervened.”
But midfielder Moustapha Salifou said: “The driver of the coach was shot almost immediately and died instantly, so we were just stopped on the road with nowhere to go.”
Andre Kuango, coordinator of a forum including FLEC members who signed a ceasefire in 2006, blamed the attack on “armed bandits who just want to sabotage the peace process.”
“There is extra security (now) and I don’t think they have any insiders in Cabinda City,” he said.
Cabinda provides half the oil output of Angola, a rival to Nigeria as Africa’s biggest producer, and the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch last year accused Angola of illegally imprisoning and torturing those suspected of fomenting separatism.
“The apparent rebel attack against a convoy of international athletes is shocking,” Georgette Gagnon, HRW’s Africa director, said on Monday.
“Angolan authorities are entitled to step up security in response to this attack. But this does not justify illegal arrests or crackdowns on the media, as it has done in Cabinda in the past.”
Martinho Nombo, a lawyer and rights activist in Cabinda, said he feared the suspects might not get a fair hearing.
“The statement by the prosecutor says the two people arrested are the attackers of the Togo team, yet they have never gone on trial,” he said.