DRC: Italian Ambassador, military police officer and WFP driver killed in ambush

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OCHA/Ivo Brandau

ROME, FEBRUARY 22 – The Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Luca Attanasio, Vittorio Iacovacci, an Italian military policeman attached to the Embassy, and Mustapha Milambo, a driver for the WFP, were killed on Monday during an attack on a UN convoy in the east of the country, it was announced in Rome. A number of other passengers travelling in the joint field mission were injured.

The group was travelling from Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, to visit a WFP-run school feeding programme in Rutshuru (about 40 miles to the north), the WFP said in a statement. The convoy drove on a route that would took the vehicles through Virunga National Park, an UNESCO World Heritage site known for its famed, and endangered, mountain gorillas, but also theatre of violent attacks, the most recent one last month when six people died. “The first two victims were killed during the attack”, said the acting head of the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC David McLachlan-Karr in a statement. MONUSCO peacekeepers “have been fully mobilized” to hunt down the attackers, the UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.

The area where the attack took place, North Kivu Province near the border with Rwanda, is known as a hotbed of violent activity and the home to a tangled web of dozens of armed groups. Last year, 17 people were killed in another attack in Virunga, which was believed to have been carried out by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

According to Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, the governor of the North Kivu Province, the attackers killed the driver, and led the rest of the convoy into the forest, attempting to kidnap them: “They were speaking Kinyarwanda (a language spoken in Rwanda)”, Kasivita said. Park rangers and a Congolese Army unit nearby arrived at the site. An exchange of gunfire followed. Images posted by local journalists on social media show the visibly injured ambassador being cradled in the back of a military truck, as a man clasped the ambassador’s hand in his, holding it over Mr. Attanasio’s chest. Ambassador Attanasio received emergency treatment at a MONUSCO hospital in Goma, but didn’t survive.

“WFP will work with national authorities to determine the details behind the attack, which occurred on a road that had previously been cleared for travel without security escorts”, the agency added, noting that it is in close contact with the Italian authorities through its offices at its Rome headquarters and in the DRC.

According to media reports, the attack took place around 10 am local time. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, although a number of armed groups are active in the region. Attanasio, who at 43 was one of the youngest Ambassadors of the Italian diplomatic network, had moved with his family to the capital, Kinshasa, in 2017 and was promoted ambassador to the DRC in 2019. He leaves behind his wife, Zakia Seddiki, whom he met while he was posted in Morocco, and three young daughters.

Guterres expresses condolences

Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio learned of the attack in Brussels and returned immediately to Rome. Mr. Di Maio expressed “immense sorrow for what happened,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “Two civil servants were violently taken away from us while carrying out their duties,” the ministry said. “The circumstances of this brutal attack are yet to be known, but no effort will be spared to shed light on what happened.”

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres, expressed his deepest condolences to the families of the deceased, as well as to the Governments of Italy and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a statement issued later on Monday, he further expressed his full solidarity with the WFP colleagues and the entire United Nations team in the country. Mr. Guterres called on the Government of the DRC “to investigate swiftly this heinous targeting of a United Nations joint field mission and to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

 McLachlan-Karr said that he was “devastated” by news of the attack and strongly condemned the assault, declaring that “those responsible…must be identified and prosecuted with the utmost determination.” He offered his deepest condolences to the families of the three victims, to the Republic of Italy and the WFP global family.

Speaking to reporters at the regular World Health Organization briefing on Monday in Geneva, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “deeply saddened and extremely concerned” by the attack in the eastern region where a recent virulent Ebola outbreak has added to the daily challenges posed by armedgroups acting with impunity. A frequent visitor to the region where WHO also has a large presence, the Director-General expressed his deepest condolences to the families of the dead, and the people and Government of Italy. (@OnuItalia)