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Originally published Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 1:09 PM

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Togo bus rampage exposes France's Angola ties

A deadly shooting rampage against Togo's soccer team in Angola has pushed France into an awkward position: After years of backing a top separatist group there - and even harboring its leaders - Paris now wants better ties with the oil-rich country's government, experts say.

Associated Press Writer

PARIS —

A deadly shooting rampage against Togo's soccer team in Angola has pushed France into an awkward position: After years of backing a top separatist group there - and even harboring its leaders - Paris now wants better ties with the oil-rich country's government, experts say.

Once a major colonial power in Africa, France still faces criticism for a paternalistic policy called "France-Afrique," an unofficial network of patronage and cozy commercial and political ties that President Nicolas Sarkozy says he wants abolished.

Friday's rampage by separatists against a bus carrying Togo's national football team killed the driver and two team officials, and prompted the squad to pull out of the African Cup of Nations in Angola.

Leaders from at least two offshoots of the separatist group Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, or FLEC, claimed responsibility for the attack in the oil-rich region, which is not geographically connected to the rest of Angola.

One of those leaders, Nzita Tiago, today lives in Paris. The other, Rodrigues Mingas, has repeatedly spoken to Western media in recent days from a French cell phone, though he insists he lives in Cabinda.

In the thick of the Cold War, analysts said, French intelligence services had tight ties to FLEC as France and other Western countries backed the opponents of Angola's Cuban-backed Marxist regime.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Tuesday that authorities were looking into whether Mingas was in France, even as Mingas told the AP that Angolan forces should expect more attacks. He said earlier that "all blows are permitted during war."

Valero said Mingas could face prosecution under French law for making such statements, telling reporters that "inciting violence is totally unacceptable." France's Interior Ministry, which would be responsible for tracking down Mingas, had no immediate comment.

Reached by mobile phone Tuesday, Mingas said his FLEC faction would continue to target the military during the tournament. He said he was speaking from Brussels after being in Antwerp, Belgium, on Monday, and would soon leave for London. He said he did not live in Europe and was using his sister's phone.

Mingas said the attack on the bus was led by a "Commander Sametonne" - referring to his nom de guerre - who told him that 15 FLEC fighters took part. They were targeting the soldiers, not the team, Mingas said.

France can have complex relations in Africa, whether motivated by economic, political or other interests - and Angola is case in point, experts say. It may sometimes hedge its bets by having contacts with the political opposition.

Last month, the West African country of Togo asked a French diplomat to leave, accusing him of supporting a French politician running for office in Togo. France defended the diplomat as professional.

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French ties with Angola were especially delicate after a French arms trafficking and corruption scandal in the 1990s that later became known as "Angolagate." In October, a French court sentenced several people in the case, which involved illicit sales of weapons to Angola's government during the country's 27-year civil war, which ended in 2002.

Since then - and since a peace deal was reached between some FLEC elements and the government - French oil titan Total has been expanding its presence in Angola. In October, it announced a new discovery in an offshore oil block there.

Africa is the largest production region for Total - and Angola is the second-largest contributor to its production after Nigeria, said spokeswoman Phenelope Semavoine.

The French "absolutely want to show the Angolans that, fresh after Angolagate, the aim is not to return to a new period of cool relations," Africa expert Antoine Glaser said.

Though France's links to FLEC began fading in the 1980s, old ties die hard, said Africa expert Jean-Marc Balencie with Risk and Co., a French risk consulting firm.

"At some point they may have provided a service (to France) and you don't just want to condemn them either," said Glaser, editor of La Lettre du Continent, which focuses on Africa.

Valero said he didn't know if France had ties with FLEC in the past, noting that such matters were the realm of the secret French intelligence service DGSE that he couldn't comment on.

But he praised a 2006 peace deal between one FLEC faction and Angola's government that put one leader, Bento Bembe, in a Cabinet post overseeing human rights issues.

Angola wants to move on from the civil war, which in nearly three decades left more than a half-million people dead and drove 4 million others from their homes.

In May 2008, Sarkozy traveled to Angola and insisted France wanted "to turn the page on the misunderstandings of the past."

He praised the country, Africa's No. 2 oil producer, as "a major power" on the continent with "immense economic potential" and a vast need for infrastructure reconstruction.

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Associated Press Writer Angela Charlton contributed to this report.

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