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.
Provincial prosecutor Antonio Nito said in a statement the two suspects belonged to the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Flec) — a heavily militarised oil-producing province geographically separated from northern Angola.
The Flec, which has being fighting for independence from Angola for over 30 years, had claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, which took place shortly after the Togo team’s bus crossed from Congo Republic.
“The two elements of Flec were captured at the scene of the incident,” Nito said in a statement published on the state news agency Angop.
Togo’s team returned home on Sunday together with the bodies of their assistant coach and media officer to begin three days of mourning, but the sports minister said they still hoped to be able to join the Cup, Africa’s biggest sports tournament.
The bus driver was also killed and Togolese goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale was stable in hospital in Johannesburg after being operated on for serious gunshot wounds, doctors said.
The attack has acutely embarrassed the Angolan government, which had declared the Flec dead, and spent $1-billion preparing for a Nations Cup to showcase a gradual recovery from decades of civil war that only ended in 2002.
Experts say the Flec is riven by factionalism and may have as few as 200 gunmen, largely confined to remote northern Cabinda. But its leadership, based in France, has vowed to carry out more attacks, and Angola has stepped up security.
Rodrigues Mingas, Flec’s secretary general, said the attack had been aimed not at the Togolese players but at the Angolan 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, but the accounts have been confused.
Togo’s French coach, Hubert Velud, told the paper L’Equipe: “We were shot at from both sides of the bus, from 10m. We owe our lives to the nerves of our driver, who was able to keep driving for a few hundred metres before the army intervened.”
But midfielder Moustapha Salifou told his club’s website: “The driver of the coach was shot almost immediately and died instantly, so we were just stopped on the road with nowhere to go.”
Cabinda provides half the oil output of Angola, a rival to Nigeria as Africa’s biggest producer, and the US-based Human Rights Watch last year accused Angola of illegally imprisoning and torturing those suspected of fomenting separatism.
“The apparent rebel attack against a convoy of international athletes is shocking,” Georgette Gagnon, HRW’s Africa director, said on Monday.
“Angolan authorities are entitled to step up security in response to this attack. But this does not justify illegal arrests or crackdowns on the media, as it has done in Cabinda in the past.”
Martinho Nombo, a lawyer and human rights activist in Cabinda, said he feared authorities were already treating the suspects as guilty.
“The statement by the prosecutor says the two people arrested are the attackers of the Togo team, yet they have never gone on trial,” he said.
Cabinda: The facts
Portuguese colonialists ruled Cabinda from 1885 until 1975, when Portugal gave up its overseas colonies following a left-wing revolution.
The independence treaty signed with Angola’s main independence movements — but not Cabinda’s Flec– incorporated Cabinda into Angola as a geographically separated exclave.
Cabinda’s secessionists fought a low-level guerrilla war to throw off Angolan rule from 1975 until they were largely crushed as Angola’s post-colonial civil war ended in 2002.
Violence has continued sporadically, despite a ceasefire signed by Flec rebels in 2006 in return for pledges of a greater share of oil revenue. The deal was rejected by a faction of the Flec led by its president, N’Zita Tiago.
Antonio Bento Bembe, a former Flec fighter who is now a minister without portfolio, said in December that Flec now consisted of only a few disaffected individuals.
Bento Bembe himself signed the 2006 ceasefire agreement as Flec secretary general, but Tiago says he still leads a war against the government from exile in Paris.
In November, Flec said it had kidnapped a Chinese oil worker. It had also earlier said it had killed several members of Angola’s armed forces — claims that Bento Bembe denied.
The US-based Human Rights Watch last June accused the Angolan government of extensive unlawful detention and torture of people suspected of rebel activities in Cabinda.
The waters off Cabinda have earned it the epithet “the Kuwait of Africa”. They provide more than half of the two million barrels per day of oil produced by Angola, which rivals Nigeria as Africa’s leading producer.
Oil accounts for about 90% of Angola’s income from exports.
Since 2006, the central government has been reinvesting 10% of Cabinda’s oil taxes in the province.
Chevron, one of Angola’s top oil producers, pumps oil from the Cabinda region.
The kingdoms that make up modern-day Cabinda adjoined Angola until 1885, when the country that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo was given sovereignty over a 60km wide strip of land surrounding the mouth of the River Congo. Cabinda covers 7 823 square kilometres and has a population of about 300 000 out of Angola’s roughly 16,5-million.
It borders the Democratic Republic of Congo to the south and east and Congo Republic to the north. The provincial capital, also named Cabinda, is the main port on its Atlantic coastline.
Most Cabindans speak French rather than Portuguese, the dominant language of Angola, as well as the indigenous language Cabindes. – Reuters