By SAMUEL PETREQUIN, AP Sports Writer
CABINDA, Angola – Togo's national soccer team, devastated by a shooting attack on its bus that killed at least three and left eight gravely injured, withdrew from the African Cup of Nations on Saturday.
The bus was in Angola about six miles from the border of Republic of Congo when the gunfire began. When the ambush ended, 30 minutes later, the driver was dead and the team's assistant coach and spokesman were mortally wounded. It was not immediately clear if the convoy was targeted. The attackers fled back into the Republic of Congo after Angolan forces intervened, officials said.
Angola's government blamed the region's main separatist group, the FLEC, who also took responsibility for the attack, according to reports from Portugal's state-run Lusa news agency.
"The championship will go on" despite the attack and the absence of Togo's team, said Angola's Sports Minister Goncalves Muandumba, whose government is hoping the tournament will give the country a chance to show it is recovering from decades of war.
Togo Football Federation vice president Gabriel Ameyi said the team should have flown to Angola instead of driving.
Togo forward Thomas Dossevi told The Associated Press in a phone interview that the team plans to withdraw from the continent-wide tournament and fly out of the country early Sunday. He said Togo team representatives met with African Football Confederation (CAF) officials Saturday to discuss postponing the tournament, but that no such decision was made.
"We are disappointed by the CAF position, which is that the show must go on whatever happened," Dossevi said, adding that the team would have been willing to play in the tournament if it was postponed.
"Our wish is that the beginning of the competition will be delayed to let us bring our dead people home," he said.
He said he and his teammates had talked to players from other squads and that he thought more teams might pull out as well.
"I can guarantee you that if the CAF doesn't want to delay the start of the competition, there will be other teams that won't play," Dossevi said. "We are footballers, we like to play football, but there are other things that are more important."
Kodjovi "Dodji" Obilale, an injured goalkeeper who also plays for the French club Pontivy, was flown to South Africa where he underwent surgery for injuries to his back, said club president Philippe Le Mestre by telephone from western France.
Togo coach Hubert Velud, quoted in an interview Friday on French radio RMC, said the assistant coach and the spokesman were hit by bullets in the stomach. Velud said he himself had been grazed by a bullet in the arm, and that keeper Kodjovi Obilale had been hit in the lower back.
Velud's comments were transcribed on RMC's Internet site. He said the Angolan army had intervened and traded fire with the attackers: "One thing's for sure, they saved our lives. Without them, the rebels would have killed us off because we were defenseless."
Kossi Agassa — a goalie for French club Istres who is also playing for Togo in the tournament — told France-Info radio by phone that a Togo assistant coach and a spokesperson were killed in the attack.
Dr. Fraser Lamond of medical assistance provider International SOS, said one of the injured died before an air ambulance could transport him to South Africa. It was not immediately clear who he was referring to.
Angola's Information Minister Manuel Rabelais said Friday that eight team members and one Angolan were injured. Ameyi named defender Serge Akakpo among those hurt. In Togo, the government said the Angolan driver was killed.
Ivory Coast general manager Kaba Kone told The Associated Press on Saturday that his team was "shocked and are living through very hard times" but never considered pulling out of the tournament.
He said the Ivorian players visited their Togolese counterparts late Friday to express their sympathy.
No security forces were apparent guarding the Ivory Coast team's hotel in Cabinda on Saturday, but Kone said CAF and tournament organizers are stepping up their measures to guarantee safety.
"This event can still be a big party," he said.