Rwandan Hutu rebels denied allegations they were behind the killing of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and instead accused the armies of the DRC and Rwanda of responsibility.
An Italian Carabinieri unit, meanwhile, was expected in DRC on Tuesday to investigate.
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Luca Attanasio died of his wounds on Monday after a World Food Programme (WFP) convoy came under fire near the eastern city of Goma while he was on a field trip. The Italian government said an Italian policeman, Vittorio Iacovacci, and a driver it did not identify also died.
DRC’s interior ministry 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.
But the FDLR rejected the allegation in a statement received by AFP news agency on Tuesday.
It said the ambassador’s convoy was attacked near the Rwandan border, “not far from a position of the FARDC [DRC’s 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.
The FDLR denied “being involved in the attack” and called on Kinshasa and UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO to “shed light” on the killings “instead of resorting to hasty accusations”.
DRC and Rwanda authorities have not reported the presence of any regular Rwandan troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But an analyst at the Kivu Security Tracker, a US monitor, said: “The FDLR are near the place where the attack took place. It’s in the realm of possibility that the Rwandan rebels are responsible for this attack.”
It is unusual for a top diplomat to be targeted in eastern DRC, but attacks have been rising, Pierre Boisselet, coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker, said.
“Attacks on humanitarians and kidnappings of humanitarian workers have been increasing. Last year we recorded 12 of those incidents in North and South Kivu, but only one ended in a death,” he said.
“Usually violence by armed groups targets civilians,” or civilians are hurt amid clashes between armed groups and the army.
The attack, 25km (15 miles) north of Goma, was right next to Virunga National Park.
DRC’s interior ministry said four other people in the convoy were kidnapped, but one person was found by the army.
The UN vehicles were hijacked by the attackers and taken into the bush. The Congolese army and park guards for Virunga National Park responded to the attack and there was an exchange of fire, according to North Kivu Governor Carly Nzanzu Kasivita.
Attanasio was shot in the abdomen and was then transported to the UN Mission in Congo hospital where he died from his wounds, according to the interior ministry. The driver and police officer died at the scene.
The WFP said the attack occurred on a road that had been cleared previously for travel without security escorts, and it was seeking more information from local officials on the attack.
UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix said the determination of whether roads are safe is normally made by UN security officials in the country.
He said he had no details on “the exact unfolding of the incident,” and “the investigation will bring, hopefully, clarity to that”.
Attanasio, 43, represented Italy in Kinshasa since 2017, first as head of mission and then as ambassador from October 2019.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella described the ambush as a “cowardly attack.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement urging the DRC to swiftly investigate a “heinous targeting” of a UN mission.
I strongly condemn the attack against a @WFP joint field mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which resulted in the killing of the Italian Ambassador to the country, his bodyguard & a WFP colleague.
The perpetrators must be brought to justice. https://t.co/HnlwbHLA6o
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) February 22, 2021
Scores of militias roam the DRC’s four eastern provinces, many a legacy of wars in the 1990s that pulled in its regional neighbours and killed millions.
Monday’s attack occurred in the thickly forested, mountainous terrain of the Nyiaragongo Territory – north of the North Kivu capital of Goma – one of the most dangerous parts of the country.
The FDLR is one of a number of armed groups operating there.
Eastern DRC remains one of the most insecure parts of the expansive country. More than 2,000 civilians were killed last year by armed rebel groups, according to a UN report last week.
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.