GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo: Italy's ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his bodyguard and a driver from the World Food Programme were killed on Monday (Feb 22) when their convoy was attacked in the east of the country, Italy and the United Nations said.
The convoy was attacked at about 10.15am (4.15pm Singapore time) in an attempted kidnap near the town of Kanyamahoro, about 25km north of the regional capital, Goma, a spokesman for the Virunga National Park told Reuters.
The deaths of the ambassador, Luca Attanasio, 43, Italian military policeman Vittorio Iacovacci, 30, and a Congolese driver, whose name has not been released, were confirmed by the Italian government in a statement.
The driver was working for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), it said in a statement, adding that a number of other passengers were injured.
Dozens of armed groups operate in and around Virunga, which lies along Congo's borders with Rwanda and Uganda. Park rangers have been repeatedly attacked and six were killed in an ambush last month.
The governor of North Kivu province, Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, told Reuters the assailants stopped the convoy by firing warning shots. They killed the driver and were leading the others into the forest when park rangers opened fire. The attackers killed the bodyguard and the ambassador also died, Nzanzu said.
Virunga spokesman Oliver Mukisya said there were no indications yet of who was behind the attack, nor was there any immediate claim of responsibility.
"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
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 the back of a park authority jeep and the broken window of a WFP vehicle. Reuters has not verified the images.
"It was with great shock and immense sorrow that I learned 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."
Di Maio was in Brussels for a European Union meeting when he heard the news and cut short his visit to head back to Italy.
According to the ministry website, Attanasio had been Italy's head of mission in the 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."
Virunga, which sits on the forest-cloaked volcanoes of central Africa and is home to more than half of the world's mountain gorillas, attracts thousands of tourists each year.
Monday's attack was in the same village where two British tourists were briefly kidnapped in 2018, leading the park to close to tourists for nine months.