Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and two other people have been killed in an attack on a United Nations convoy in the restive east of the central African country.
The convoy from the World Food Programme (WFP) was attacked at about 10.30am local time (0830 GMT) during an attempted kidnapping near the town of Kanyamahoro, about 10 miles north of the regional capital, Goma, a spokesperson for Virunga national park said.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, but the road on which the convoy was travelling is a frequent site of attacks by bandits and armed militia.
Ambassador Luca Attanasio and a male Italian military police officer travelling with him were killed, the Italian foreign ministry said in a statement. A driver also died in the attack, diplomatic sources and local officials said.
“It is with deep sorrow that the foreign ministry confirms the death today in Goma of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Luca Attanasio, and of a policeman from the carabinieri,” the Italian foreign ministry statement said. “The ambassador and the soldier were travelling in a car in a convoy of Monusco, the United Nations organization stabilisation mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Attanasio died of his wounds in the UN hospital in Goma. The 43-year-old, who was married with three children, had been Italy’s head of mission in Kinshasa since 2017 and was made ambassador in 2019.
The UN’s peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance mission in the DRC is one of the biggest and most dangerous such operations in the world.
The exact circumstances of the attack remain unclear.
Attanasio was in Goma for a series of meetings, including one with Italian NGO representatives. He had visited a WFP school canteen on Monday morning, and was travelling to the small town of Rutshuru to view a community feeding project when the convoy was ambushed at around 10.30am, humanitarian officials said.
Mambo Kawaya, the president of civil society groups in Nyiragongo territory, told Actualité.cd, a local news site, that there were five people in Attanasio’s vehicle when it was attacked.
The governor of North Kivu province, Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, said the assailants stopped the convoy by firing warning shots. They killed the driver and were leading the others into the forest when park rangers opened fire. The attackers killed the bodyguard and the ambassador also died, Nzanzu said.
“The driver appears to have been killed [immediately] after receiving multiple bullet wounds but others were wounded and taken to the Monusco base … The situation is tense,” Kawaya said.
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 six who were killed in an ambush last month. Local security forces are under-resourced, poorly trained and corrupt.
In May 2018, gunmen attacked a vehicle carrying tourists travelling from Goma to their accommodation in Virunga national park very close to where Attanasio’s convoy was ambushed. A 25-year-old ranger was shot dead, a Congolese driver was wounded and two British tourists were held by the militia overnight.
Marie Tumba Nzeza, the minister of foreign affairs, said her government would investigate the attack. “It is with great pain and much sadness that we have just learned of the death of the young Italian ambassador here in DRC,” said Nzeza.
“I promise the Italian government that the government of my country we will do all we can to discover who is responsible for this ignoble murder.”
Nzeza’s pledge may be met with some scepticism. The murderers of two UN consultants killed in DRC in 2017 are yet to be brought to justice despite years of international pressure.
He 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 dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Attanasio joined the Italian diplomatic service in 2003 and served previously in Switzerland, Morocco and Nigeria. Emanuela Del Re, who was Italy’s deputy foreign minister from 2018 until last month, hailed him as “a man gifted with uncommon courage, humanity and professionalism”.
Attanasio spent Sunday evening at a dinner for the small Italian community – mainly humanitarian workers – at an Italian restaurant in Goma. Miriam Ruscio, head of programmes at AVSI, an NGO which specialises in education and child protection in eastern DRC said: “He was really informal, humble and friendly … really interested in what we were doing. He said he appreciated what we were all doing on the frontline, helping people while he was in Kinshasa. The road he was on is unpredictable but it is a very big shock.”