Italy's ambassador to Democratic Republic of the Congo was killed on Monday along with his bodyguard and a World Food Programme driver when their convoy was attacked in the east of the country, Italy and the United Nations said.
The assailants stopped the convoy by firing warning shots, killed the Congolese driver and were leading the passengers into the forest when park rangers opened fire, the governor of North Kivu province, Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, told Reuters.
The Italian ambassador, Luca Attanasio, 43, was hit in the abdomen and died several hours later at the UN hospital in the regional capital Goma, Congo's interior ministry said.
Italy said Attanasio's bodyguard Vittorio Iacovacci, 30, also died in the attack. The driver was named by a security source and local rights activists as Mustapha Milambo.
“It was with great shock and immense sorrow that I learnt of the death today of our Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and of a Carabinieri policeman,” Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in a statement.
“The circumstances of this brutal attack are still unclear and no effort will be spared to shed light on what happened.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Congo's interior ministry blamed a Hutu militia called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
It is one of dozens of armed groups operating in and around Virunga National Park, which lies along Congo's borders with Rwanda and Uganda and is home to more than half the world's mountain gorillas.
The FDLR, founded by members of the militia behind the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, kidnapped two British tourists in the same village in May 2018, leading the park to close to tourists for nine months. The couple were released after several days.
“I promise the Italian government that my country's government will do everything to discover who is behind this awful murder,” Congo's foreign minister Marie Ntumba Nzeza said.
CLEARED FOR TRAVEL
The convoy was attacked at about 10:15am (0815 GMT) some 25km (15 miles) north of Goma, a spokesperson for the Virunga National Park told Reuters. Local civil society member Mambo Kawaya said it happened in the village of Rurimba.
The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) said the delegation was on its way to visit a school feeding programme in Rutshuru. It said the road had previously been cleared for travel without security escorts.
Photos shared on social media showed Attanasio lying in the arms of a man in a park authority jeep and the broken window of a WFP vehicle. Reuters has not verified the images.
Italy's foreign ministry website said Attanasio had been its head of mission in Congo's capital Kinshasa since 2017 and was made ambassador in 2019. He was married and had three young daughters, according to his Facebook page. “He was an enthusiastic young diplomat with a great sensitivity to social problems,” said Mauro Garofolo at the Sant'Egidio charity based in Rome. “He closely followed our work such as our programme to help HIV/AIDS sufferers.”
The driver, Milambo, leaves behind four children, said Jean-Mobert Senga, a Congolese rights activist.
"(He) joins thousands of Congolese who have lost their lives in this region, including on this road, and whose tragedies rarely make the headlines and comments from politicians in Kinshasa,” he said on Twitter.