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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) – The Italian ambassador to Congo, an Italian Carabinieri police officer and their Congolese driver were killed Monday when gunmen attacked a UN convoy traveling to a school in eastern Congo, the Italian Foreign Ministry and residents said.
Luca Attanasio, serving at the Italian embassy in the country since 2017, Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci and their driver Moustapha Milambo were killed, officials said. Other members of the convoy were wounded and taken to a hospital, the World Food Program said.
Congo’s interior ministry said four others in the convoy were kidnapped, but one person has since been found by Congo’s army.
The ambush occurred as the convoy was traveling from Goma, Congo’s eastern regional capital, to visit a WFP school project in Rutshuru, the UN agency said.
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.
The attack, about 16 miles north of Goma, was right next to Virunga National Park. North Kivu Governor Carly Nzanzu Kasivita said the UN 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.
Attanasio was shot in the abdomen, according to a statement by Congo’s Interior Ministry. He was then transported to the UN Mission in Congo hospital where he died from his wounds, the ministry said.
Without citing sources, Italian state TV on Monday night said the convoy apparently was the target of a kidnapping attempt with the aim of securing ransom money.
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.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Congo’s Interior Ministry has blamed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the Rwandan Hutu rebel group known as FDLR, for the attack.
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 UN calls one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Congo suffered through one of the world’s most brutal colonial reigns before undergoing decades of corrupt dictatorship. Back-to-back civil wars later drew in a number of neighboring countries. In January 2019, Congo experienced its first peaceful democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960 following the election of President Felix Tshisekedi.
The UN peacekeeping mission has been working toward drawing down its more than 17,000-troop presence in the country and transfer its security work to Congolese authorities.
“These tragic killings highlight the insecurity in eastern Congo,” in an area that has seen a rise in kidnappings, organized criminality and militias, said Ben Shepherd, consulting fellow with the Chatham House Africa Program.
It took place on one of the main roads from Goma, a well-traveled road that is generally viewed as secure, he said, adding that it would be difficult to know at this point if it was a random, opportunistic attack on a convoy or a planned attack.