The Italian ambassador to Congo, an Italian carabinieri 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.
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.
Luca Attanasio, Italy's ambassador to the country since 2017, carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci and their driver were killed. Other members of the convoy were injured, WFP said.
The attack occurred in the territory of Nyiragongo, in North Kivu, the same area, known as the "three antennas," where two Britons were kidnapped by unidentified armed men in 2018, said Mambo Kaway, president of a local civil society group.
"There were five people aboard the vehicle, including the Italian ambassador," Kaway said. "The driver died after being shot with several bullets, and others were wounded," he said.
"The situation is very tense," he added.
The wounded were taken to a nearby U.N. hospital.
The North Kivu governor, Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, said that the vehicles were taken hostage and escorted into the bush and that when local people saw them, they alerted the authorities.
The Congolese army and park guards for Virunga National Park came to the rescue, 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, leaves a wife and three young children.
The attack, a few kilometers north of the regional capital of Goma, was just next to the Virunga National Park. Last month gunmen shot and killed at least six rangers in the Rutshuru area of the park.
Marie Tumba Nzenza, Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent her condolences and promised the Italian government that the Congolese government would do all it could to investigate and find out who is behind the killings.
More than 2,000 civilians were killed last year in eastern Congo in violence by armed groups whose brutal attacks using machetes and heavy weapons have also displaced millions in what the United Nations calls one of the worst humanitarian crises as attacks ramp up this year.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell informed the bloc’s foreign ministers of the incident at a meeting he is chairing in Brussels and presented his condolences to Italy and the United Nations.
"The news (is) extremely worrying, and we are following the situation closely with the EU delegation" in Congo, EU Commission spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said.
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 the Nassiriya International Prize for Peace in October in a ceremony held in a church in southern Italy.
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.