Italian ambassador among 3 killed in attack on Congo convoy

Jean-Yves Kamale and Nicole Winfield
Associated Press

Kinshasa, Congo — The Italian ambassador to Congo, an Italian Carabinieri 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.

Luca Attanasio, Italy’s ambassador to the country since 2017, Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci and their driver were killed, officials said. Other members of the convoy were wounded and taken to a hospital, the World Food Program said.

Two UN soldiers stand guard in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, in November 2012. The region has seen spikes of violence, and an Italian ambassador was killed while there Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.

The ambush occurred as the convoy was traveling from Goma, Congo's eastern regional capital, to visit a WFP school project in Rutshuru, the U.N. agency said.

Luca Attanasio.

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.

The attack, a few kilometers north of Goma, was right next to 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.

Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci.

“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.” Around 1,000 Italians live in Congo.

Congo suffered through one of the world'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.

The vehicle in which the Italian ambassador to Congo was killed, according to those at the scene, sits with a smashed window in Nyiragongo, North Kivu province, Congo Monday.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission has been working toward drawing down its more than 17,000-troop presence in the country and transfer its security work to Congolese authorities.

“These tragic killings highlights the insecurity in eastern Congo,” in an area that has seen a rise in kidnappings, organized criminality and militias, said Ben Shepherd, consulting fellow with the Chatham House Africa Program.

It took place on one of the main roads from Goma, a well-traveled road that is generally viewed as secure, he said, adding that it would be difficult to know at this point if it was a random, opportunistic attack on a convoy or a planned attack.

“There is so much insecurity in the region ... at this point it can only be speculation as to who carried this out,” he said.

Nicole Winfield reported from Rome. Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Frances D'Emilio in Rome, and Andy Meldrum in Johannesburg, contributed to this report.