By JEAN-YVES KAMALE and NICOLE WINFIELD
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — The Italian ambassador to Congo, an Italian carabineri police officer and their Congolese driver were killed Monday when gunmen attacked a U.N. convoy going to visit a school in eastern Congo, the Italian Foreign Ministry and residents said.
The ambush occurred as the convoy was travelling from Goma, Congo’s eastern regional capital, to visit a World Food Program school project in Rutshuru, the U.N. 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.
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 also expressed their condolences to the victims’ families.
“The circumstances of this brutal attack are still unclear and no effort will be spared to shed light on what happened,” Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said.
Di Maio was flying from Brussels to Rome to meet with Draghi and to brief Italian lawmakers on the attack. The Rome prosecutors’ office routinely leads investigations of Italians who are victims of crime abroad.
A special Carabinieri investigative unit was headed to Kinshasha and expected to arrive Tuesday, Italian state TV reported.
After serving in diplomatic roles in Switzerland, Morocco and Nigeria, Attanasio was assigned to the Italian embassy in Kinshasa in September 2017.
Last October, he was awarded the Nassiriya International Prize for Peace in a ceremony held in a church in southern Italy. Attanasio was cited for “having contributed to the realization of important humanitarian projects, distinguishing himself for altruism, dedication and the spirit of service for people in difficulty,” the La Repubblica newspaper reported.
It quoted Attanasio as saying that “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 is “above all to be close to the Italians but also to contribute to achieving peace.” Some 1,000 Italians live in Congo.
Congo suffered through one of the worl’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.