DR Congo diplomatic death questioned

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At around 10:00 am on February 22, seven men, some armed, stepped onto a road in eastern Congo and forced two cars belonging to the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to stop.

Several minutes of heavy gunfire alerted a group of conservation rangers guarding workers on a scrubby slope above.

The attackers left the road with their captives and walked up the open hillside towards the rangers, known as the country’s best-trained fighters.

When the group was around 100 metres away, rangers fired warning shots, sparking a three minute skirmish. The attackers fled, leaving Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Luca Attanasio, mortally wounded and his bodyguard dead.

This account of a botched kidnapping, corroborated by UN officials and an Italian judicial source – all with knowledge of probes into the attack – appears in an incident report by the Virunga National Park Rangers, seen by Reuters.

Previously unreported, it paints a picture of a poorly planned, clumsily executed act running counter to the assumption among some officials and media at the time that Attanasio was the target of an orchestrated operation.

The attackers never displayed awareness of ambassador Attanasio’s identity or diplomatic status, two UN sources said.

Much of eastern Congo is beset by violence in recent decades as rival militias fight government troops and each other for control of land and resources, attacks on aid convoys are relatively rare.

The WFP said criminal activity combined with political instability impacted on its capacity to deliver assistance in eastern Congo in the last decade.

It expects all parties to abide by humanitarian principles “central to establishing and maintaining access to affected people,” WFP said in a statement to Reuters.

Last year, 42 aid workers were kidnapped in eastern Congo, up 35% on 2019, making Congo the second most dangerous country to be a humanitarian worker, according to data from the International NGO Safety Organisation.

“Kidnappings can go for as little as $100, up to several thousand for humanitarians. I think that’s the reason they are targeted more and more,” said Pierre Boisselet from KST, a research initiative mapping unrest in the region.

In an area awash with weapons, Attanasio’s death appears to be a high-profile illustration of how humanitarians are fair game for profit, alongside gold, charcoal and tin.

“Given the size of the group and the way it carried out the attack, it is likely kidnapping was the motive rather than a deliberate attack against the Italian ambassador,” said an incident report by risk assessment firm Intelligence Fusion.

AID IS KEY

The military prosecutor for North Kivu, the province where the attack took place, declined to comment on details of an ongoing investigation.

The government did not respond to a request for comment.

The rangers are not at liberty to comment on an ongoing investigation and the Italian foreign ministry declined to provide an update about the killing.

The attack on an aid convoy was in a country where people are heavily reliant on humanitarian support.

Conflicts, disease, under-development and natural disasters mean an estimated 5,2 million people are displaced in Congo and 19,6 million needed humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021, according to the UN.

At around 9am that February morning, two white WFP-branded 4x4s left regional capital Goma on the N2 north-east to Rutshuru some two hours away, carrying the ambassador, his bodyguard and five WFP staff, WFP said.

An important regional transport artery, the road does require UN agencies to have armed escorts, according to a UN Department for Safety and Security designation.

The vehicles left the city, skirting the eastern foothills of Mount Nyiragongo and the boundary of Virunga National Park, home to rival militias.

Since the invasion of eastern Congo by Rwanda-backed rebels in 1996, the fight over land and communities evolved into a way of life, with armed outfits splitting and re-mixing in a mosaic of 120 groups across the mineral-rich region.

Last year violence surged, with killings by armed groups rising 142%.

The number of people kidnapped for ransom in Nyiragongo sector, where the WFP convoy was stopped, more than doubled to 28 last year, according to data collected by the Kivu Security Tracker.

The spike is aided by the rise of mobile phone banking to quickly and easily pay ransoms, said Onesphore Sematumba, a researcher with the International Crisis Group.

“Before it was risky, people had to hand over money. Now they send the money instantly by phone.”

INTO THE LONG GRASS

The attackers set their trap next to Kibumba village in a dip in the road around a kilometre from  forest offering them cover, according to a map of the area included in the rangers’ report and two people who visited the site.

A kilometre further, thick undergrowth reaches roadside. They stopped the convoy 250m from a checkpoint manned by a Congolese army battalion.

Carrying four Kalashnikov-type weapons and two machetes, assailants ordered seven men out of the vehicles, UN sources said.

“Give me money!” they shouted in French, while snatching mobile phones and disarming Attanasio’s Italian bodyguard, 30-year-old Vittorio Iacovacci, said a UN security analyst who interviewed survivors.

One attacker let off a volley of warning shots, lost control of his weapon and hit WFP driver Mustapha Milambo in the neck, according to the analyst, who declined to be named. Milambo later died.

The kidnappers continued firing in the air as they herded the remaining captives off the road.

Reuters could not confirm the account independently.

The group cut across a lava field towards the forest, on relatively open ground, leaving them exposed. Up the hill, eight rangers listened as the gunfire approached.

Shooting between attackers and rangers lasted about three minutes followed by silence, according to the rangers’ report.

In the melee, Iacovacci tried to move the ambassador from the line of fire, said an Italian judicial and foreign ministry source.

Low on ammunition and with at least one wounded, the attackers fled, the UN security analyst and a UN source said.

“One survivors said the assailants deliberately shot hostages before fleeing,” the rangers’ report said. Iacovacci died on the spot.

Some minutes later, three rangers approached the source of gunfire and shouted for anybody present to put their hands up.

Photographs shared on social media showed an ashen-faced Attanasio driven away in the arms of WFP security officer Mansour Rwagaza some minutes later.

He was taken to a UN base outside Goma and transferred to a UN hospital in the city where he was declared dead, becoming Italy’s first ambassador to be killed on mission.

Shortly after the attack, Congo’s presidency said “irrefutable preliminary elements confirm the thesis of a terrorist attack by the (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda)”, a rebel group active in the area.

The FDLR said it was not involved in what it called a “cowardly assassination”.