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.
It said it wanted its neighbors and France to clamp down on the rebels who have claimed responsibility for the attack in Cabinda, a heavily militarized oil-producing province geographically cut off from northern Angola.
Provincial prosecutor Antonio Nito said the two suspects belonged to the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) — the small remnant of a group that has been fighting for independence from Angola for over 30 years.
Friday’s attack took place shortly after the Togo team’s bus crossed into Cabinda from the Republic of Congo.
The 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, as Africa’s biggest soccer event got under way.
Togo’s sports minister and several players had said they hoped the tournament schedule could be changed to let the team return later and honor their dead colleagues by playing.
But the Confederation of African Football said this was impossible. “They are disqualified,” CAF coordinator Yaouba Amoa told reporters.
Togo had been due to play Ghana in Cabinda on Monday.
The attack has acutely embarrassed the Angolan government, which had declared the FLEC dead and spent $1 billion preparing for the Nations Cup to showcase a gradual recovery from decades of civil war that only ended in 2002.
Antonio Bento Bembe, an ex-rebel who is now a minister in charge of Cabinda affairs and policy on the FLEC, told Reuters the government “will do all we can to finish them off”.
In an interview, he said Angola guaranteed there would be no more attacks during the Nations Cup, and that oil firms operating in Cabinda were safe, but that other countries must help. [nLDE60A1X1]
Experts say the FLEC is divided and may have as few as 200 fighters, largely confined to remote northern Cabinda. But its leadership, based in France, says it will launch more attacks.
“We want an international arrest warrant to be issued to capture those responsible for fuelling this attack,” Bento Bembe said. He urged France to arrest N’Zita Tiago, the Paris-based FLEC president.
The minister also called for help from Cabinda’s neighbors — the Republic of Congo, to the north, where he said one of the attackers came from, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), whose territory separates the Cabinda enclave from Angola proper, to the south.
A DRC spokesman said his country now regarded FLEC as a “terrorist organization” and would strip its members of their refugee status.
France said remarks made by Rodrigues Mingas, FLEC’s secretary general, on Sunday in which he pledged to pursue an insurgency were “unacceptable and will have consequences”.
Mingas said on Monday 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.
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.”
Bembe said the driver, earlier reported to have been killed, was badly wounded but out of danger.
Cabinda provides half the oil output of Angola, a rival to Nigeria as Africa’s biggest producer, from offshore oil wells operated by Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Total, among others. (Additional reporting by Henrique Almeida in Luanda and James Mackenzie in Paris; Writing by Kevin Liffey; )