Italian Ambassador to DR Congo Dies after WFP Convoy Attacked

Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an Italian policeman and their Congolese driver have been killed in an ambush on a United Nations convoy in eastern DRC, Al Jazeera reports.

The ambush on Monday occurred as the convoy carrying Ambassador Luca Attanasio was travelling from the city of Goma to visit a World Food Programme (WFP) school feeding project in Rutshuru, according to the United Nations agency.

At least two other people were killed – a policeman identified as Vittorio Iacovacci and a driver – and several others were injured in the attack. North Kivu Governor Carly Nzanzu told Al Jazeera the seven-member convoy was not escorted by any security forces when the incident happened.

The WFP said it was seeking information from local authorities as the ambush occurred on a road that had previously been cleared for travel without security escorts. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which took place at about 10:15am (08:15 GMT).

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio expressed his “great dismay and immense sorrow” over the attack and left a meeting in Brussels with European Union counterparts to make an early return to Rome.

“The circumstances of this brutal attack are not yet known and no effort will be spared to shed light on what happened,” Di Maio said, paying tribute to the victims.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the diplomat was heading to the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when their convoy was attacked by militants. President Sergio Mattarella has slammed the “cowardly attack” and offered his condolences, joined by Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

“The Italian Republic is in mourning for these servants of the state who lost their lives”, Mattarella said.

Nzanzu, the North Kivu governor, said local security forces had not been informed of the delegation’s presence in the area.

“The rebels stopped the WFP convoy with bullets, before bringing down the passengers on board including the ambassador. According to survivors, the rebels wanted money from the ambassador,” Nzanzu told Al Jazeera. “They took all the passengers and the ambassador to the bush. And a few minutes later on their way they killed the Congolese driver and then the ambassador’s bodyguard,” he added.

Nzanzu said Attanasio was hit by bullets fired by the attackers during an exchange of fire between the rebels and Virunga park rangers supported by the DRC’s armed forces who were alerted to the attack. The DRC’s army said troops were searching the area in the Virunga National Park for the assailants.

Attanasio is the second European ambassador to have been killed while serving in the DRC. In January 1993, French Ambassador Philippe Bernard was killed during riots in Kinshasa sparked by troops opposing former President Mobutu Sese Seke.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to swiftly investigate the attack in which the Italian ambassador to that country and two other people were killed earlier on Monday.

“The Secretary-General calls on the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to investigate swiftly this heinous targeting of a United Nations joint field mission and to bring the perpetrators to justice,” Dujarric said.

Authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on Monday evening identified rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) movement as being responsible for an ambush that killed Attanasio.

In a statement released by the Interior Ministry, the DRC authorities claimed that the rebel elements active around the eastern province of North Kivu launched the attack earlier Monday, which left three people dead, including Attanasio, his bodyguard and a Congolese driver, with several others injured.

Rwandan Hutu rebels Tuesday denied allegations they were behind the killing of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo and instead accused the armies of the DRC and Rwanda.

The DRC interior ministry blamed the killings on “members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR),” a Rwandan Hutu rebel group that has plagued the region for more than a quarter of a century. But the FDLR rejected the allegation, in a statement received by AFP on Tuesday. It said the ambassador’s convoy was attacked near the Rwandan border, “not far from a position of the FARDC (DR Congo armed forces) and Rwandan soldiers…

“The responsibility for this despicable killing is to be found in the ranks of these two armies and their sponsors who have forged an unnatural alliance to perpetuate the pillaging of eastern DRC”, it said.

The FDLR denied “being involved in the attack” and called on Kinshasa and UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO to “shed light” on the killings “instead of resorting to hasty accusations.” The DRC and Rwanda authorities have not reported the presence of any regular Rwandan troops in the DRC.

An expert at the Kivu Security Tracker (KST), a US monitor, told AFP: “The FDLR are near the place where the attack took place. It’s in the realm of possibility that the Rwandan rebels are responsible for this attack.”

The area of the attack – the DRC’s border with Rwanda and Uganda – is frequently subject to attacks by various militant groups. Dozens of armed groups operate in and around Virunga, which lies along the DRC’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda. Park rangers have been repeatedly attacked, including eight who were killed in an ambush last month.

North Kivu, where Goma is situated, is the home province of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) group that brings together Islamists and forces opposed to long-time Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The ADF has operated in the province since the late 1990s. In 2017, the group swore allegiance to ISIS. The United Nations holds the group responsible for killing hundreds of civilians.

The UN’s refugee agency said last week more than 2,000 civilians were killed in North and South Kivu and Ituri provinces last year.