CABINDA, Angola (Reuters) - Two members of Togo’s soccer delegation died on Saturday and one was undergoing surgery, a day after the team bus was ambushed and sprayed with gunfire on its way to the African Nations Cup in Angola.
A Togolese minister said the government had decided to pull the team out of the tournament because of “this dramatic situation,” but Ivory Coast and Ghana confirmed they would take part.
Seven members of Togo’s delegation were wounded and the bus driver was killed in Friday’s attack in the province of Cabinda. It was claimed by the FLEC, a rebel group that has been fighting for secession sporadically for decades.
It was the second militant attack on an international sports team in less than a year. Last March, six policemen and a driver were killed when gunmen attacked a bus carrying Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Pakistan.
The assault raised questions about security for the soccer World Cup taking place in South Africa in June, but organizers of that event said it was ‘nonsensical’ to draw comparisons.
Togolese officials named the dead men as media officer Stanislas Ocloo and assistant coach Amalete Abalo, and said reserve goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale had been evacuated to Johannesburg for medical treatment.
Obilale was rushed to Milpark hospital for surgery, and hospital spokesman Barry Bedford said: “He is going into theater now, but he is in a stable condition.”
In the Togolese capital Lome, Territorial Administration Minister Pascal Bodjona said the government had decided to recall the team. “We could not continue the African Nations Cup in this dramatic situation,” he said in a statement.
“This was necessary because our players are in a state of shock and because we do not think the security which should have been placed around our players is giving the necessary guarantees.”
Togo’s captain and star striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who escaped the attack badly shaken but unharmed, was already flying home, his English club Manchester City said.
The team bus, traveling from its training ground in the Congo Republic, had just entered Cabinda, geographically cut off from the rest of Angola, on Friday when it came under fire.
”I know I am really lucky,“ said midfielder Moustapha Salifou. ”A defender who was sat in front of me took two shots in the back ...
“Our security people saved us ... They were in two separate cars, about 10 of them in total, and they returned fire. The shooting lasted for half an hour and I could hear the bullets whistling past me. It was like a movie.”
Virgilio Santos, an official with the African Nations Cup local organizing committee COCAN, said teams had been told explicitly not to travel to the tournament by road.
“We asked that all delegations inform us when they would arrive and provide the passport number of their players,” he told the sports weekly A Bola.
“Togo was the only team not to respond and did not inform COCAN it was coming by bus ... The rules are clear: no team should travel by bus. I don’t know what led them to do this.”
Organizers said on Friday the tournament would start as planned on Sunday.
Togolese players were reluctant to take part, even before their recall was announced. “No one wants to play,” Salifou was quoted as saying by his English club, Aston Villa. “We just want to go home ... We can’t play in these circumstances and we want to leave for home today.”
Cabinda, the scene of FLEC attacks even after Angola’s 27-year civil war ended in 2002, provides half the oil output of Angola, which rivals Nigeria as Africa’s biggest producer.
Friday’s attack came five months before South Africa hosts the World Cup, the first African nation to hold the world’s biggest single-sport event.
Chief World Cup organizer Danny Jordaan said the attack would have no impact on the World Cup. “It is nonsensical for South Africa to be tainted with what happens in Angola, which is not even one of our neighboring countries,” he said.
Former Togo coach Otto Pfister disagreed. “This is a real blow for Africa. It will obviously be linked directly with the World Cup,” he told German sports news agency SID. “It will give the critics a boost.”
South Africa has spent at least 13 billion rand ($1.7 billion) on new stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup.
South African President Jacob Zuma will attend Sunday’s opening ceremony despite the attack, his spokesman said.
“Ghana is not pulling out. We asked for increased security and we have it,” a Ghanaian sports ministry official said. African champions Egypt and Nigeria also demanded more security.
Cabinda, wedged between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo, was due to host seven matches, the first, on Monday, between Togo and Ghana and Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
Ivory Coast general manager Kaba Kone told reporters: “We have not considered leaving the tournament. Organizers and CAF must improve safety ... we can still have a great party if safety is guaranteed.”
The FLEC was not considered a serious threat in Cabinda, despite claiming to have kidnapped a Chinese oil worker and killed government soldiers last year.
In December, Angolan minister without portfolio Antonio Bento Bembe, a former FLEC leader, dismissed the claims and said the group no longer existed.
Additional reporting by Kwasi Kpodo in Accra, Mark John in Dakar, David Graham in Berlin; writing by Henrique Almeida and Kevin Liffey; editing by Tim Pearce and Mark Trevelyan