The Africa Cup of Nations got off to the worst possible start last night when unidentified gunmen attacked the Togolese team bus, reportedly killing the driver and wounding nine others, including two players. The West African team includes Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor, but he was not among the injured players, according to officials at the Premier League club.
The government in Angola, where the tournament had been due to kick off tomorrow, denounced what it called an "act of terrorism". Speaking after the attack, the Togo player Thomas Dossevi described a terrifying ordeal as heavily armed assailants fired automatic weapons at the bus.
"We were machine-gunned, even though we had two coaches of police escorting us," he said. The midfielder, who plays his club football with Nantes in France, said that goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilalé and defender Serge Akakpo were among those injured.
"It's madness, they shot at us like dogs for 20 minutes," he said. "They were wearing balaclavas and were armed to the teeth."
The team were travelling from their training base in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to the north Angolan enclave of Cabinda when the attack happened. They had been due to play their first match on Monday against Ghana but, while the Angolan authorities were insisting that the tournament would go ahead, the Togolese last night threatened to withdraw from the competition.
Adebayor, the side's captain, told BBC radio that many of his team-mates wanted to leave and that he would convene a meeting. "I think a lot of players want to leave, I don't think they want to be at this tournament any more because they have seen their death already," he said. "Most of the players want to go back to their family. No one can sleep after what they have seen today. They have seen one of their team-mates have a bullet in his body, who is crying, who is losing consciousness and everything. Tomorrow morning we will make a decision which is good for our life. We are still in shock. If the security is not sure then we will be leaving tomorrow. I don't think they will be ready to give their life."
Dossevi said that the group had just passed through immigration control into Angola when the shooting started. "Players received bullets in the abdomen and the driver was hit," he added. He said Akakpo "took a bullet in the back" and that Obilalé was "bleeding a lot". An official from the sports ministry in the Togolese capital, Lome, said the team's Angolan driver had been "killed on the spot".
The separatist group the Front for the Liberation of Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) claimed responsibility for the attack last night. Cabinda, separated from the rest of Angola by a sliver of DR Congo, has been blighted by three decades of fighting between a separatist group and the government.
Antonio Bento Bembe, Angola's minister without portfolio who is in charge of Cabinda affairs, said an investigation had been launched. "This was an act of terrorism that is being dealt with as we speak," he said.
There have been serious doubts about the wisdom of staging Africa's top football tournament in Angola, which is still recovering from decades of civil war. The vast, oil-rich African nation was seeking to use the tournament to showcase its new-found wealth and status after overtaking Nigeria as the continent's leading oil producer. But preparations had been hit by delays and a chronic lack of infrastructure.
Cabinda, sandwiched between the two Congo states, is Angola's main oil-producing region. Human rights groups have accused the military of a string of atrocities in the enclave and claim government officials have embezzled millions. The government has denied the charges.
The attack will also add to pressure on the World Cup host, South Africa, which is spending heavily to ensure security ahead of the tournament in June. However, sub-Saharan Africa's largest economy has incomparably better infrastructure than its war- devastated near neighbour to the north.
Many of Togo's players ply their trade in the French league but the two footballers who play in England, Manchester City's Adebayor and Aston Villa's Moustapha Salifou, were both unhurt.
"Club officials have spoken with Adebayor and though shaken by the terrible events, he is unharmed," Manchester City said in a statement.