At least 17 people, including 12 rangers were killed on Friday in an attack in Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the restive east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, park authorities said.
Besides the 12 park rangers, a driver and four other civilians were killed in the attack which park authorities have attributed to a Rwandan rebel group.
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“Initial investigations indicate that the rangers were on their way back to their headquarters when they encountered a civilian vehicle that had been attacked and subsequently came under a ferociously violent and sustained ambush,” park authorities said in a statement.
“We can confirm that the perpetrators of this attack were the armed group ‘FDLR-FOCA’,” it added, referring to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed rebel groups active in the DRC.
It said two civilians and three rangers were injured, one of whom was in critical condition.
Commenting on the wider context of the attack, Phil Clark, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told Al Jazeera: “FDLR is a Hutu-dominated rebel group. The reason it is fighting the Congolese army at the moment is because the Congolese government is in the process of renewing relations with the Rwandan government. And that is a Tutsi-dominated government.”
He added: “Rwanda wants Congo to deal with the FDLR, which they see as a Hutu threat across the border – killing Tutsi civilians inside Congo. The FDLR also has a history of going across the border into Rwanda.”
Virunga National Park is spread more than 7,800 square kilometres (3,011 square miles) over the borders of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. The park is home to a world-famous population of mountain gorillas but has been hit by rising instability and violence.
Inaugurated in 1925, the park has witnessed repeated attacks by rebel groups, militias and poachers.
Visits to the park have been suspended since March 19 for at least 30 days as part of the DRC’s efforts to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.
The park banned visitors between May 2018 and the start of last year after two British tourists were kidnapped there. They were later released but a ranger was killed during the abduction.