KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — The Italian ambassador to Congo, an Italian carabineri police officer and their Congolese driver were killed Monday in an attack on a U.N. convoy in an area that is home to myriad rebel groups, the Foreign Ministry and local people said.
The ambush occurred as the convoy was traveling from Goma, Congo’s eastern regional capital, to visit a World Food Program school feeding project in Rutshuru, the U.N. agency said in a statement.
The WFP said the attack occurred on a road that had been cleared previously for travel without security escorts, and it was seeking more information from local officials on the attack. Eastern Congo is home to myriad rebel groups all vying for control of the mineral-rich Central African nation that is the size of Western Europe.
Luca Attanasio, Italy’s ambassador to the country since 2017, carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci and their driver were killed, the Foreign Minister said. Other members of the convoy were injured and taken to a hospital, WFP said.
The attack, a few kilometers north of Goma, was just next to the Virunga National Park. North Kivu Gov. Carly Nzanzu Kasivita said the U.N. vehicles were hijacked by the attackers and taken into the bush. The Congolese army and park guards for Virunga National Park came to help those who had been attacked, he said.
“There was an exchange of fire. The attackers fired at the bodyguard and the ambassador,” the governor said, adding that the ambassador later died from his wounds.
Attanasio, a 43-year-old career diplomat, left behind a wife and three young children.
The attack occurred in the same area where two Britons were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in 2018, said Mambo Kaway, head of a local civil society group.
“The situation is very tense,” he added.
More than 2,000 civilians were killed last year in eastern Congo in violence by armed groups whose brutal attacks have also displaced over 5.2 million people in what the U.N. calls one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Marie Tumba Nzenza, Congo’s minister of foreign affairs, sent her condolences and promised the Italian government that the Congolese government would do all it could to find those behind the killings.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Premier Mario Draghi expressed their condolences to the families of the victims. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio vowed to ascertain who was responsible for killing “exemplary” Italians as they did their jobs.
“The circumstances of this brutal attack are still unclear and no effort will be spared to shed light on what happened,” he said in a statement.
Congo’s east is home to myriad rebel groups all vying for control of the mineral-rich land.
There are 5.2 million people displaced in the Central African nation, according to the United Nations Children’s Agency, which said in a report Friday that this represents more displaced than in any other country except Syria. In the past year alone, 50% have been displaced, it said.
The nation the size of Western Europe suffered through one of the most brutal colonial reigns ever known before undergoing decades of corrupt dictatorship. Back-to-back civil wars later drew in a number of neighboring countries. And many rebel groups have come and gone during the U.N. mission’s years of operation, at times invading the eastern regional capital, Goma, where the ambassador was killed.
In January 2019, Congo experienced its first peaceful democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960 following the election of President Felix Tshisekedi. He succeeded strongman Joseph Kabila in a disputed election marked by allegations of large-scale fraud.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission, known by its acronym MONUSCO, has been working to draw down its at least 16,000-troop presence and transfer its security work to Congolese authorities.
After serving in diplomatic roles in Switzerland, Morocco and Nigeria, Attanasio was appointed ambassador at the Italian embassy in Kinshasa in September 2017.
Attanasio was awarded a peace prize in October 2020 in a ceremony held in a church in southern Italy. The Nassiriya International Prize for Peace is named in memory of the 19 Italians, including 12 Carabinieri paramilitary officers, five soldiers and two Italian civilians, who were killed in the bombing of the Italian military base in southern Iraq in 2003. Nine others were also killed.
Attanasio was cited for “his commitment aimed at safeguarding peace between peoples” and for “having contributed to the realization of important humanitarian projects, distinguishing himself for altruism, dedication and the spirit of service for people in difficulty,” said La Repubblica daily in its account of the ceremony.
La Repubblica quoted Attanasio as saying, “All that which we take for granted in Italy isn’t in Congo, where, unfortunately, there are so many problems to resolve.” Attanasio described the role of the ambassador there is “above all to be close to the Italians but also to contribute to achieving peace.” Some 1,000 Italians live in Congo.
Jean-Yves Kamale reporting. Nicole Winfield reported from Rome. Lorne Cooke contributed from Brussels and Frances D’Emilio from Rome. Trademark and Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.