The Italian Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo has been killed in an attack on a World Food Programme (WFP) convoy, a local governor said on Monday.
Luca Attanasio died of injuries, shortly after the convoy was ambushed in Virunga National Park near the eastern city of Goma in North Kivu province, the province’s Governor Carly Nzanzu Kasivita told dpa.
He said the ambassador’s driver and a bodyguard were also killed.
The Italian government confirmed Attanasio’s death and said an Italian policeman, Vittorio Iacovacci, as well as a driver it did not identify, had also died.
President Sergio Mattarella lashed what he called a “cowardly attack.” “The Italian republic is in mourning for these servants of the state who lost their lives,” he said in a statement.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio expressed his “great dismay and immense sorrow”, breaking off from a meeting in Brussels with EU counterparts to make an early return to Rome. “The circumstances of this brutal attack are not yet known and no effort will be spared to shed light on what happened,” Di Maio said.
Attanasio, 43, had been representing Italy in Kinshasa since 2017, first as head of mission, and then as ambassador from October 2019.
The envoy suffered “gunshot wounds to the abdomen” and was taken to a hospital in Goma in critical condition, the diplomat in Kinshasa said. The DRC’s army said its troops were searching the area for the assailants.
A vast country the size of continental western Europe, the DRC is grappling with numerous conflicts, especially in its remote, mineral-rich east. Scores of militias roam the four eastern provinces, many of them a legacy of wars in the 1990s that sucked in countries around central-southern Africa and claimed millions of lives.
The Rome-based WFP said that Attanasio was on a fact-finding mission with the UN’s food agency.
“The delegation was travelling from Goma to visit a WFP school feeding programme in Rutshuru when the incident took place,” it said in a statement.
“The attack… occurred on a road that had previously been cleared for travel without security escorts,” it said. Monday’s attack occurred north of Goma, in Nyiaragongo Territory.
Armed groups in the area include a Rwandan Hutu militia called the FDLR, as well as the M23, also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army. The region includes the UNESCO-listed Virunga National Park, a vast wildlife reserve that is home to a quarter of the world’s population of critically endangered mountain gorillas.
More than 200 of the park’s rangers have been killed in attacks stretching back more than a decade.
The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, said last week that more than 2,000 civilians were killed in North and South Kivu and Ituri province last year.
Attanasio joined the Italian diplomatic service in 2003 and served previously in Switzerland, Morocco and Nigeria.
He was hailed as “a man gifted with uncommon courage, humanity and professionalism” by Emanuela Del Re, who was deputy foreign minister from 2018 until last month. Del Re said she worked with Attanasio on the emergency repatriation of a “very sick” nun from DR Congo.
“I remember his infectious smile, his class, his great knowledge of African affairs,” she said. “Ciao (good-bye) my dear esteemed Luca.”
Attanasio 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