Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, an Italian policeman, and their Congolese driver were killed in an ambush on a convoy of the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) near Goma in eastern DRC today Monday.
A statement from the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Rome, Italy says that Ambassador Luca Attanasio and the others were part of a convoy of the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in Dr Congo (MONUSCO).
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio expressed his “great dismay and immense sorrow” over the deadly attack and broke off from a meeting in Brussels with European Union (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, paying tribute to the victims.
The ambush occurred as the convoy was travelling from Goma, Congo’s eastern regional capital, to visit a World Food Program (WFP) school project in Rutshuru, the UN 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.
Attanasio, 43, represented Italy in Kinshasa since 2017. He joined the diplomatic service in 2003 and served previously in Switzerland, Morocco and Nigeria.
No group has claimed responsibility for the deadly attack so far.
The convoy was ambushed at around 10:15am (08:15 GMT). Italian President Sergio Mattarella condemned the “cowardly attack”.
“The Italian Republic is in mourning for these servants of the state who lost their lives,” Mr Mattarella said in a statement, offering “my deepest sympathy and solidarity” with the families of Luca Attanasio and those of the policeman Vittorio Iacovacci and the driver who died.
North Kivu governor, Carly Nzanzu, told Al Jazeera that local security forces were not informed of the delegation’s presence in the area.
“The rebels stopped the WFP convoy with bullets, before bringing down the passengers on board including the ambassador. According to survivors, the rebels wanted money from the ambassador,” Mr Nzanzu told Al Jazeera.
“They took all the passengers and the ambassador to the bush. And a few minutes later on their way they killed the Congolese driver and then the ambassador’s bodyguard,” he added.
Mr Nzanzu said Attanasio was hit by bullets fired by the attackers during an exchange of fire between the rebels and Virunga park rangers supported by DRC’s armed force who were alerted to the attack.
The governor said the seven-member convoy was not escorted by any security forces when the incident happened.
Dozens of armed groups operate in and around Virunga, which lies along DR Congo’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda. Park rangers have been repeatedly attacked, including eight who were killed in an ambush last month.
The DRC’s army said troops were searching the area for the assailants.
The UN’s refugee agency said last week more than 2,000 civilians were killed in North and South Kivu and Ituri provinces last year.
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 former president, Mobutu Sese Seke.