By Henrique Almeida
LUANDA (Reuters) - Gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying Togo's national soccer squad to the top African tournament in Angola on Friday, killing the driver and wounding nine others, including two players, a Togo team official said.
Togo captain Emmanuel Adebayor, who was on the bus but escaped unharmed, said his team might quit the African Nations Cup, where some of soccer's most valuable stars are due to play.
A shaken Adebayor, who joined Manchester City for a reported 25 million pounds ($40 million) last year, also decried the blow to Africa's image in the year when South Africa hosts the World Cup.
The bus had just entered the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, where separatists have waged a three-decade long war, when it came under heavy gunfire for several minutes, the team official said. An Angolan minister called the attack in Cabinda, which produces most of Angola's oil, an "act of terrorism".
Many of the players at the tournament are with clubs at the top level of European football including Adebayor, Cameroon forward Samuel Eto'o of Inter Milan and Chelsea's Ivory Coast striker Dider Drogba.
A separatist group, the Front for the Liberation of Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) claimed responsibility for the attack, which happened two days before the start of the 2010 African Nations Cup, Africa's most-followed sporting event.
"This operation is just the start of a series of planned actions that will continue to take place in the whole territory of Cabinda," said the statement seen by Reuters and signed by FLEC's secretary general Rodrigues Mingas.
SAFETY OF PLAYERS
The organizers, the Confederation of African Football (CAF), said the tournament would go ahead despite the attack. "Our first priority is the safety of the players but the tournament will go ahead," CAF spokesman Suleimanu Habubu said in Luanda.
However, Adebayor cast doubt on Togo's participation. "As the captain of my national team I can say that if the security is not sure then perhaps we will be leaving tomorrow (Saturday)," the former Arsenal striker told BBC World Service.
"It is a football game and one of the biggest tournaments in Africa but I don't think people are ready to give their lives," he said. "A lot of players want to leave. They have seen death and want to go back to their families."
The attack comes five months before South Africa becomes the first African nation to host the World Cup.
"We keep repeating (that) Africa, we have to change our image if we want to be respected and unfortunately that is not happening," said Adebayor. "We have a chance to organize ... one of the biggest tournaments in this world which is the World Cup, and can you imagine what is happening now?"
Worries surrounding the World Cup focus on South Africa's high rate of common crime, rather than political instability as in Cabinda, although security will be tight due to the risk of terrorism that all major sporting events face.
CAF said senior officials would fly to the area on Saturday.
The Angolan government said it would beef up security so that the tournament, due to run from January 10-31 in four provinces including Cabinda, could proceed peacefully.
Host nation Angola had hoped the tournament would showcase how well it had recovered from decades of civil war.
"The response from the (police) escort meant the damage was limited and there are now nine injured people in hospital," Winny Dogbatse, a senior Togo official, told Reuters TV.
Togo midfielder Thomas Dossevi told French radio how he and his teammates cowered on board the bus during the attack.
"We had crossed the border about five minutes before and the bus was fired on for a good quarter of an hour. We protected ourselves as best we could," he told France Info.
"ACT OF TERRORISM"
Togo officials confirmed the wounded players were Serge Akakpo, who plays for Romanian first division side Vaslui, and reserve goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale, who is with French fourth division team Pontivy. The other casualties were training, medical and administrative staff.
Antonio Bento Bembe, the Angolan minister in charge of affairs in Cabinda, said: "This was an act of terrorism."
In a statement published on state-owned news agency Angop, the Angolan government said: "The FLEC group that carried out this terrorist action came from the Republic of Congo and that is where it returned to after completing this action."
Cabinda is a small enclave separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of land belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The roots of the conflict between the government and FLEC are deep but one of the main grievances is that Cabindans see few benefits from the oil produced from their land.
Soccer's world governing body FIFA offered its "utmost sympathy" to the Togo team after the attack.
Togo were due to play Ghana on Monday, one of six group matches and one quarter-final scheduled to be played there.
Two Togolese who play in the English premiership, Aston Villa midfielder Moustapha Salifou and Adebayor, were unhurt, their teams' websites said.
(Additional reporting by John Zodzi in Lome, Mark Gleeson in Cape Town and Noel Kokou Tadegnon in Lome; Writing by Mark John and Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton and David Stamp)