JOHANNESBURG // The rebels who ambushed the Togolese football team's convoy in the Angolan exclave of Cabinda, killing three people and casting a pall over the African Cup of Nations tournament, yesterday threatened to mount more attacks. Responsibility for the assault, which triggered a firefight with Angolan security forces that some witnesses said lasted as long as 30 minutes, was claimed by the Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda - Military Position (Flec-MP), a hardline faction of a separatist movement that, only six weeks ago, a government minister in Luanda said no longer existed.
The Cup of Nations is being seen as Angola's "coming-out party" after its long civil war and becoming a major oil producer. Analysts say Luanda had made a point of basing one of the groups - Group B, which includes the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso and, until its withdrawal, Togo - in Cabinda to demonstrate that the separatist conflict in the province, which it invaded in 1975 and which is the site of more than half its petroleum reserves, was also over.
Instead, the attack on the Togolese team and its security escort - condemned as "terrorism" by Luanda - has propelled the Cabinda issue to unprecedented global prominence, despite the reduction of the insurgency in recent years. Speaking from exile in France, Rodrigues Mingas, Flec-MP's secretary general, said in an interview that there would be more incidents during the tournament. "We have planned other actions across the territory," he said. "The country is at war and anything can happen."
Describing the decision to continue with the tournament in Cabinda as "incomprehensible" and showing "a real lack of wisdom", he went on: "It doesn't matter how many reinforcements they send, we will engage them." Mr Mingas said the ambush was led by a fighter known as Commander ça M'Étonne, French for "I'm surprised". Cabindans are ethnically related to the peoples of neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the rebels have adopted French as their lingua franca as a sign of distinction from Angola.
He claimed that several Angolan personnel had been wounded and were being treated in a military hospital in Cabinda, but no official confirmation could be obtained. Luanda has 30,000 soldiers permanently stationed in Cabinda and Mr Mingas insisted the attack had been aimed at security personnel accompanying the Togolese team, that he "deplored" the civilian deaths, and that his movement was approaching the Togolese authorities to offer their apologies for them. Two of the fatalities were members of the Togo delegation, several players were injured and one is in intensive care in Johannesburg, where he was airlifted for treatment by specialists.
"It's sad, but it wasn't planned. Our target was the Angolan forces escorting the bus. We are not killers; we took up arms because we were provoked by an invading force. "Our country has riches underground, but we are not fighting because of the oil. Even if Cabinda was as poor as the sands of the Sahara we would fight because we want to go home, but Angola has sown terror and fear in Cabinda." In the circumstances - a 15-strong commando team engaging vehicles in front and behind a civilian vehicle with firearms - the claim is disingenuous at best, and Hubert Velud, the Togo coach who was hit in the arm, praised the Angolan forces for saving the team's lives.
"They were armed to the teeth, which surprised us a bit. Had they got wind of something? We don't know. But what is certain is that they saved our lives. Without them, the rebels would have finished us because we would have been defenceless," he told the French radio station RMC. "It was an act of war. There was a lot of blood and fear in the bus." The tournament got under way last night with the host country taking on Mali in the capital, Luanda. The Togolese team pulled out after a long day in which their participation was off, then back on, and finally off again.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, several players said they wanted to leave, and Manchester City Football Club even said its striker Emmanuel Adebayor was on board an aircraft out of the country. Thomas Dossevi, who plays for the French club Nantes, told Agence France-Presse: "We are all a little shocked and we're asking why CAF were holding games in Cabinda. How can you organise a tournament in a state of war?"
Then Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and Angolan officials, including Paulo Kossoma, the prime minister, flew to Cabinda to plead with them to stay in the tournament, in which Luanda has invested hundreds of millions of dollars of its oil revenues. The team changed its mind, with Dossevi saying: "In memory of the dead, the national team has decided to play in the African Nations Cup - We are all heartbroken; it is no longer a party, but we want to show our national colours, our values and that we are men."
Next, the Togolese government stepped in to order the side back to Lomé, saying it would be irresponsible to allow them to continue. "If there is a team or persons present under the banner of Togo at the opening of the Africa Cup of Nations this afternoon, it will be a false representation," said the prime minister, Gilbert Houngbo. Dossevi accepted the ruling. "We're going home, we're obliged to, the government wants us to," reports quoted him as saying.