Congolese and UN troops secured the scene of the attack on the Italian ambassador and his staff

Goma (DR Congo) (AFP) - Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo was among three people killed on Monday when a UN convoy was ambushed in the country’s troubled east, an attack the government blamed on a Rwandan Hutu rebel group.

Luca Attanasio died of his wounds after a World Food Programme (WFP) convoy came under gunfire near Goma while he was on a field trip, a senior diplomatic source said in Kinshasa.

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.”

Ambassador Luca Attanasio, in an undated picture issued by the Italian foreign ministry

“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 DRC’s interior ministry, in a statement, blamed the attack on “members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR),” a Rwandan Hutu rebel group that has plagued the region for more than a quarter of a century.

Four people were kidnapped, one of whom was later found, it 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.

- Troubled region -

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.

According to a US monitor, the Kivu Security Tracker (KST), 122 armed groups were active in North and South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika provinces last year. More than 2,000 civilians were killed, according to UN figures issued last week.

Monday’s attack occurred north of the North Kivu capital of Goma, in Nyiaragongo Territory – an area where the FDLR is one of a number of armed groups.

Some of the founders of the FDLR were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis but also Hutu moderates, were slaughtered by the Hutu majority.

Map of DR Congo locating Goma

The group is opposed to the current Rwandan government but has not launched any large-scale offensive in Rwanda since 2001.

In April last year, the FDLR was blamed for killing 12 rangers in the Virunga National Park, a UNESCO-listed wildlife reserve that is home to critically-endangered mountain gorillas.

Another group in the area north of Goma is a Congolese Tutsi group also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army, which took Goma in 2012-2013.

The WFP said Attanasio had been with it on a fact-finding mission.

“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.

But the DRC interior ministry said the security services and provincial authorities had not been given advance warning.

”(They) were unable to provide special security for the convoy or come to its aid because of a lack of information about their presence in this part of the country, despite its reputation for instability,” its statement said.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a statement urging the DRC to swiftly investigate a “heinous targeting’ of a UN mission.

- ‘Uncommon courage’ -

Attanasio joined the Italian diplomatic service in 2003 and had previously served 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.

“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 Seke.