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Rwandan Hutu rebels on Tuesday denied accusations that they were behind the murder of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and instead blamed the armies of the DRC and Rwanda, while more details have emerged about the attack.
Luca Attanasio, 43, died on Monday after a World Food Program (WFP) convoy was ambushed in a dangerous area in eastern DRC.
The envoy’s Italian bodyguard, Vittorio Iacovacci, and an unidentified Congolese driver also died during the on-the-spot visit.
On Monday, the DRC’s interior ministry blamed the killings on “members of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR)” – a Rwandan Hutu rebel group that has plagued the region for more than a quarter of a century.
The group, however, denied the charges. “The FDLR say 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”.
The FDLR instead accused the Rwandan army and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) of the attack in a statement received Tuesday by TBEN.
He indicated that the ambassador’s convoy had been attacked near the Rwandan border, “not far from an FARDC position”.
“Responsibility for this heinous murder lies with the ranks of these two armies and their sponsors who forged an unnatural alliance to perpetuate the looting of eastern DRC,” he said.
The FDLR called on Kinshasa and the UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, to “shed light” on the killings “instead of resorting to hasty accusations.”
The authorities of the DRC and Rwanda did not report the presence of regular Rwandan troops in the DRC.
Three people died as a result of the attack this morning: the Italian ambassador to #RDC, Luca Attanasio, his bodyguard of Italian nationality and WFP driver of Congolese nationality. https://t.co/nHrOSgTSwj
– Kivu security barometer (@KivuSecurity) February 22, 2021
The FDLR was founded by Rwandan officers and militiamen who the UN and others say helped orchestrate the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. It is one of some 120 armed groups operating in eastern Congo.
The group kidnapped two British tourists from the same village in May 2018 and detained them for several days before releasing them.
Virunga National Park, which lies along the DRC’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda and is home to more than half of the world’s mountain gorillas, has been closed for nine months.
Italy repatriates bodies
Meanwhile, Italy began repatriating the bodies of Italian victims of the attack on Tuesday.
In the eastern city of Goma, a United Nations van transported the bodies of Attanasio and Iacovacci to the airport, where an Italian cargo plane had landed early in the afternoon to transport the bodies to Rome.
Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi sent his main diplomatic adviser to Goma to support an investigation by local authorities, the presidency announced on Tuesday.
Monday’s attack occurred north of the North Kivu capital, Goma, on Route Nationale 2, a road that cuts through dense mountainous and forested terrain near the porous border with Rwanda.
The world-famous Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed wildlife reserve, straddles the region.
Tshisekedi’s office said Attanasio arrived in Goma on Friday morning on a MONUSCO plane.
He left Monday morning in a convoy of two WFP vehicles to Kiwanja, in the Rutshuru region, accompanied by his bodyguard and WFP employees, he said.
The convoy was ambushed three kilometers (1.8 miles) from their destination by six assailants, armed with five AK-47 assault rifles and a machete.
“They fired warning shots before forcing the people in the vehicles out and follow them into the depths of the park (Virunga), which they did by shooting down one of the drivers to cause panic”, the president’s office said.
Park rangers and nearby military troops heard the noise and pursued the attackers.
“Five hundred meters (from the ambush site), the kidnappers shot point blank at the bodyguard, who died on the spot, and at the ambassador, hitting him in the abdomen,” the presidency said.
After the Italian government expressed shock and outrage at the attack, newspapers in Rome on Tuesday raised questions about the security preparations for the trip.
The DRC’s interior ministry said in a statement Monday that security services and provincial authorities had not been notified in advance of the trip.
“(They) were not able to provide particular security to the convoy or come to its aid due to a lack of information about their presence in this part of the country, despite its reputation for instability.” , did he declare.
But WFP, in a statement, said the attack “occurred on a road that had previously been allowed to travel without security escort.”
A UN humanitarian official in the DRC, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that meant the convoy had to consist of at least two vehicles.
(TBEN with TBEN and REUTERS)