Attack blamed on local fighters is the latest to hit large park renowned for its mountain gorillas.
Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an Italian policeman and their Congolese driver have been killed in an ambush on a United Nations convoy in eastern DRC.
The ambush on Monday occurred as the convoy carrying Ambassador Luca Attanasio was travelling from the city of Goma to visit a World Food Programme (WFP) school feeding project in Rutshuru, according to the United Nations agency. It said several other passengers travelling with the delegation sustained injuries during the attack.
North Kivu Governor Carly Nzanzu told Al Jazeera the seven-member convoy was not escorted by any security forces when the incident happened.
The WFP said it was seeking information from local authorities as the ambush occurred on a road that had previously been cleared for travel without security escorts.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which took place at about 10:15am (08:15 GMT).
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio expressed his “great dismay and immense sorrow” over the attack and left a meeting in Brussels with European Union counterparts to make an early return to Rome.
“The circumstances of this brutal attack are not yet known and no effort will be spared to shed light on what happened,” Di Maio said, paying tribute to the victims.
Nzanzu, the North Kivu governor, said local security forces had not been informed of the delegation’s presence in the area.
“The rebels stopped the WFP convoy with bullets, before bringing down the passengers on board including the ambassador. According to survivors, the rebels wanted money from the ambassador,” Nzanzu told Al Jazeera.
“They took all the passengers and the ambassador to the bush. And a few minutes later on their way they killed the Congolese driver and then the ambassador’s bodyguard,” he added.
Nzanzu said Attanasio was hit by bullets fired by the attackers during an exchange of fire between the rebels and Virunga park rangers supported by the DRC’s armed forces who were alerted to the attack.
The DRC’s army said troops were searching the area in the Virunga National Park for the assailants.
Dozens of armed groups operate in and around Virunga, which lies along the DRC’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda. Park rangers have been repeatedly attacked, including eight who were killed in an ambush last month.
The UN’s refugee agency said last week more than 2,000 civilians were killed in North and South Kivu and Ituri provinces last year.
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 former President Mobutu Sese Seke.
Alain Uaykani contributed to this report from Kinshasa.