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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 27 February 2021

Rwandan Hutu rebels deny involvement in attack that killed Italian envoy in DR Congo

Luca Attanasio died of his wounds after a World Food Programme convoy came under gunfire while on a field trip

A Carabinieri officer looks at the Italian flag that flies at half mast next to EU and Presidential Standard of Italy flags, outside the Presidential Quirinale Palace in Rome, following the death of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio. Italian military policeman Vittorio Iacovacci and their Congolese driver, were also killed in the attack on a United Nations convoy in eastern Congo. Reuters
A Carabinieri officer looks at the Italian flag that flies at half mast next to EU and Presidential Standard of Italy flags, outside the Presidential Quirinale Palace in Rome, following the death of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Luca Attanasio. Italian military policeman Vittorio Iacovacci and their Congolese driver, were also killed in the attack on a United Nations convoy in eastern Congo. Reuters

An armed group in eastern Congo accused by the government of carrying out an ambush in which Italy's ambassador and two other people were killed, has denied any involvement in the attack and accused the armies of the DRC and Rwanda instead.

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 to visit a school feeding programme, according to a senior diplomatic source in Kinshasa and the WFP.

The DRC interior ministry had blamed the killings 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.

"The FDLR declare that they are in no way involved in the attack," the rebel group said in a statement on Tuesday, condemning what it called a "cowardly assassination".

It said the ambassador's convoy was attacked near the Rwandan border, "not far from a position of the FARDC (DR Congo armed forces) and Rwandan soldiers...

"The responsibility for this despicable killing is to be found in the ranks of these two armies and their sponsors who have forged an unnatural alliance to perpetuate the pillaging of eastern DRC", it said.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio will report to parliament on the incident by Wednesday, according to Italian news agency, ANSA.

In a statement, the DRC's President Felix Tshisekedi said he "condemns very strongly this terrorist attack" and promised an inquiry.

Tshisekedi will send an envoy to Rome on Tuesday to deliver a personal letter from him to Italian PM Mario Draghi, according to ANSA.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen expressed "shock" at the attack, in a region "where the population suffers unacceptable violence".

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, a diplomat in Kinshasa said.

A vast country the size of continental western Europe, the DRC is grappling with numerous conflicts, especially in its remote, mineral-rich east.

A convoy transports the bodies of Italian ambassador to Congo Luca Attanasio and Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci to the airport to be taken to the capital Kinshasa, in Goma, North Kivu province, Congo Tuesday, February 23, 2021. AP
A convoy transports the bodies of Italian ambassador to Congo Luca Attanasio and Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci to the airport to be taken to the capital Kinshasa, in Goma, North Kivu province, Congo Tuesday, February 23, 2021. AP

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 -- one of the most dangerous parts of the country.

The FDLR is one of a number of armed groups operating there.

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 captured Goma in 2012-2013.

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

"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."

But the DRC interior ministry said the security services and provincial authorities had not been given advance warning and was unable to provide security for that reason.

An airplane arrives to transport the bodies of Italian ambassador to Congo Luca Attanasio and Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci to the capital Kinshasa, at the airport in Goma, North Kivu province, Congo Tuesday, February 23, 2021. AP 
An airplane arrives to transport the bodies of Italian ambassador to Congo Luca Attanasio and Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci to the capital Kinshasa, at the airport in Goma, North Kivu province, Congo Tuesday, February 23, 2021. AP 

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a statement urging the DRC to swiftly investigate a "heinous targeting" of a UN mission.

A UN Security Council statement condemned the attack, and "underlined the need to bring perpetrators of these acts to justice".

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, Italy's deputy foreign minister from 2018 until last month.

"I remember his infectious smile, his class, his great knowledge of African affairs," she said.

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.

Updated: February 23, 2021 07:41 PM

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