PLAYERS RETURN HOME TO NATIONAL MOURNING

LOME - Flags flew at half-mast in Togo as the nation began three days of national mourning yesterday following the return of the national football team after a gun attack which killed two members of its delegation in Angola.

LOME - Flags flew at half-mast in Togo as the nation began three days of national mourning yesterday following the return of the national football team after a gun attack which killed two members of its delegation in Angola.

The players arrived in Togo's airport late on Sunday night, some wearing bandages on their arms to cover bullet wounds.

Togo's press officer and an assistant coach were killed on Friday, along with their Angolan driver, after suspected rebels in Angola's volatile Cabinda region raked their bus with machine gunfire as they headed to the African Cup of Nations. Togo withdrew from the tournament in the wake of the attack.

Speaking late on Sunday, Prime Minister Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo said the tragedy was "a big loss for Togo, a sad day for Togolese football". The players, looking downcast, were met by supporters and family members at Lome airport and whisked away to a hotel.

When the bodies of assistant coach Amelete Abalo and press officer Stan Ocloo Togo were removed from the presidential plane sent to collect them, family members broke down in tears and some threw themselves to the ground.

Houngbo said in a statement broadcast over state radio yesterday that the deaths marked a great loss for Togo. "They will be fittingly buried and deservingly honoured," he said.

Togo's players reluctantly left Angola. They had said they wanted to compete to honour the dead, but the government dispatched the plane after saying it was not safe to stay.

Meanwhile, the rebels who ambushed a bus carrying the Togo soccer team meant to attack only the accompanying security convoy, not the team, a rebel leader said yesterday.

"This attack was not aimed at the Togolese players but at the Angolan forces at the head of the convoy," said Rodrigues Mingas, general secretary of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC).

"So it was pure chance that the gunfire hit the players. We don't have anything to do with the Togolese and we present our condolences to the African families and the Togo government," he told France 24 TV.

The FLEC, which has being fighting for independence from Angola for the northerly province of Cabinda for over 30 years, had already claimed responsibility for Friday's attack. - Sapa-AP-Reuters

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