- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 10, 2010


CABINDA, Angola — Togo’s soccer team responded to being targeted by a deadly ambush blamed on separatists by withdrawing from a continentwide tournament in Angola hours before the opening match Sunday, as a pro-independence leader in the northern region where the attack took place said more violence was possible.

The Togolese players themselves earlier said they wanted to stay and compete in the African Cup of Nations in honor of their assistant coach, a team spokesman and the Angolan bus driver who died. But their government insisted they retreat, saying the host and the African Football Confederation had failed to ensure their safety.

“We fully understand our government’s decision to leave because they didn’t receive enough guarantees for our security,” forward Thomas Dossevi told the Associated Press on Sunday. “We as players, we wanted to stay to honor the memory of our dead people, but both positions are understandable.”

Togo team captain Emmanuel Adebayor, speaking in an interview with France’s RMC radio Sunday, said the team finally decided to “pack our bags and go home” after the Manchester City striker got a call from Togo President Faure Gnassingbe himself urging them to return.

“That’s what made the difference,” Mr. Adebayor was quoted as saying in a transcript of his interview on RMC’s Web site.

Togolese Prime Minister Gilbert Houngbo said in Togo’s capital, Lome, that “Angola and the African Football Confederation have not taken adequate security measures to ensure the safety of the Togolese national team.”

Mr. Houngbo said the country’s presidential plane was in Angola to take the team to Lome. He said that it would take some time to get them back, as they have to accommodate the wounded.

Mr. Dossevi said all team members would go to Lome together before rejoining their respective soccer clubs, some in Europe.

On Saturday, most of the top officials of the African Football Confederation, known by its initials in French as CAF, went to Cabinda, the restive, oil-rich region where the attack took place and where some of the injured were recovering, and implored Togo to stay.

CAF president Issa Hayatou said he had received a guarantee from Angola Prime Minister Antonio Paulo Kassoma that security would be beefed up for all teams at all venues.

Mr. Kassoma also went to Cabinda on Saturday.

“We want to transmit to the authorities of the Togolese government the intention to celebrate this great African party,” Mr. Kassoma said on state TV Sunday. “And we also say to the Togolese delegation and to all the other delegations that their safety is guaranteed.”

In a telephone interview Sunday with the Associated Press, Tiburcio Tati Tchingobo, minister of defense in the self-declared Federal State of Cabinda, denied his Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda forces, known as FLEC, were responsible for the ambush. He added that whoever was responsible was sparked by a level of frustration that could lead to more violence.

He said his group had no objection to the African Cup of Nations tournament, even with play in Cabinda.

“On the side of the federal government, I’ve got no problem,” he said, reached on a satellite phone number and saying he was in Cabinda. “The tournament can go on, but we are worried about security. We don’t have any problem with our fellow African brothers.”

In a communique Saturday, Mr. Tchingobo’s self-proclaimed independent government said it was irresponsible of CAF’s Mr. Hayatou to have ignored warnings from separatists that matches should not be held in Cabinda.

The Angolan information minister blamed FLEC for the attack on the Togolese team. In Sunday’s exclusive interview, Mr. Tchingobo said that was “Angolan government manipulation, to tarnish our names, to make us out as terrorists.”

Portugal’s state-run Lusa news agency said FLEC claimed responsibility in a message on Friday.

The conflicting reports could stem from divisions among pro-independence groups in Cabinda. Several claim the name FLEC.

Cabinda’s armed groups have been weakened by factional fighting. But periodic announcements from the Angolan government that the Cabinda uprising has been quelled, either by force or negotiations, have been followed by new outbreaks of violence.

The Angolan government has denied charges from international human rights groups its military has committed atrocities in Cabinda. In Sunday’s exclusive interview, Mr. Tchingobo said he feared the attack on the Togolese team would spark a crackdown by Angolan forces in Cabinda after the tournament ends.

“Angola should recognize that we are a sovereign state,” Mr. Tchingobo said. “They should pack up and go.”

The separatists argue Cabinda, an oil-rich region cut off from the rest of Angola by a strip of Congo, is distinct culturally and historically. The Angolan government rejects such claims, and its decision to stage part of the African Cup in Cabinda –-building a new stadium there for the games — reflects its determination to keep control of the region.

Angola has been struggling to climb back from decades of violence, and its government was banking on the tournament as a chance to show the world it was on the way to recovery.

Cabinda’s unrest was unrelated to, and often overshadowed by, the broader civil war.

Associated Press writers Ebow Godwin in Lome, Togo; Donna Bryson in Johannesburg, South Africa; and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.

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