PARIS – Hosting the African Cup of Nations was Angola's chance to show it is recovering from decades of war, but tragedy struck as gunmen sprayed bullets at Togo's national team, killing three people and forcing its withdrawal from the soccer tournament.
Africa's main soccer tournament was expected to open as planned on Sunday, even though players from other countries expressed shock at the ambush on the Togo team bus as it traveled through Angola's restive oil-rich Cabinda province.
"We have goose bumps ... who knows what is going to happen to us," Amade Chababe, assistant coach to the Mozambique national football team, told AP Television News as the squad passed through Johannesburg en route to Angola on Saturday.
In South Africa, the local organizing committee of the World Cup said the attack had no relevance to the upcoming global sports event that starts in June. Spokesman Rich Mkhondo said FIFA views Friday's attack as an isolated incident which could have happened anywhere in the world.
"We wish to state that there is no link between what happened in Angola and South Africa's preparations to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup," said Mkhondo, according to the South African Press Association. "We also cannot compare organization and security in Angola with South Africa just because the two countries happen to be in the same region in the world."
The attack in Angola, a former Portuguese colony, killed an assistant coach, a team spokesperson and the bus driver, according to the team and the Togolese government.
"Despite this, the championship will go on," Angola's Sports Minister Goncalves Muandumba said.
Togo forward Thomas Dossevi told The Associated Press in a phone interview that the team plans to withdraw from the continentwide tournament and fly out of the country early Sunday.
Emmanuel Adebayor who is captain of the Togo team and a top player for Manchester City, described a vicious attack on a defenseless team.
The violence came as a surprise because unrest associated with Cabinda, a northern enclave cut off from the rest of Angola by a strip of Congo, has been at low levels. The main separatist group is the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, or FLEC. The Angolan information minister blamed the group for the attack.
Adebayor said that minutes after entering Cabinda "from nowhere gunmen began to open fire on our bus."
He said the team endured the gunfire for 13 minutes before Angolan soldiers repulsed the assailants.
Goalie Kossi Agassa — who plays for French club Istres and for the Togo team in the tournament — told France-Info radio that a Togo assistant coach and a spokesperson died and that a second team goalkeeper was badly wounded.
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.
Richard Friedland, CEO of Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, told reporters that Obilale suffered two gunshot wounds to the lower back and will undergo surgery tonight.
"He is fully receptive. He understands where he is," Friedland said.
In Togo, the government said the Angolan driver was killed.
Angola's Information Minister Manuel Rabelais said Friday that eight team members and one Angolan were injured.
Togo's bus in a convoy from the Republic of Congo was six miles across the border in Angola when it came under fire.
The African Football Confederation (CAF) condemned the attack. A delegation of Angolan officials and a CAF delegation headed to Cabinda, while the Angolan Prime Minister was to meet CAF president Issa Hayatou "to take decisions to guarantee the smooth running of the competition."
FIFA also expressed "utmost sympathy" in a statement and said it expected a report from CAF.
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.
Kone said CAF and tournament organizers are stepping up security measures to guarantee the team's safety in Cabinda.
"This event can still be a big party," he said.
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.
A building boom fueled by oil wealth has included new stadiums in Cabinda and three other cities for the tournament.
An anti-colonial war had begun in the 1960s, and a civil war broke out after independence. The fighting ended in 2002 when the army killed Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, known as UNITA, now the main opposition party.
President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos had beaten Savimbi in the first round of 1992 presidential election, but Savimbi refused to accept defeat and returned to war before the second round could be held. Dos Santos remains president.