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Congo, Italy, UN probe ambassador's killing amid questions

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The coffins of Italian ambassador to Congo Luca Attanasio and Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci, draped with the Italian flag, are loaded onto an airplane for repatriation to Italy, at the airport in Goma, North Kivu province, Congo Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. An Italian Carabinieri unit is expected in Congo Tuesday to investigate the killings of the Italian ambassador to Congo, an Italian Carabinieri police officer and their driver in the country's east. (AP Photo/Justin Kabumba)

KINSHASA – Italian Carabinieri experts were joining U.N. and Congolese authorities in investigating the killings of the Italian ambassador, his bodyguard and their driver in eastern Congo amid questions about the dynamics of the attack and security precautions taken for the convoy.

The two-car World Food Program convoy was travelling from Goma, the regional capital in the east, to visit a WFP school project in Rutshuru, when an armed group blocked their passage Monday and ordered the passengers out, WFP said Tuesday.

The Congolese driver Moustapha Milambo was killed immediately. WFP said Ambassador Luca Attanasio and Carabinieri officer Vittorio Iacovacci were fatally shot in an ensuing shootout.

But how events transpired exactly remained unclear, with WFP saying the road had been previously cleared for travel without security escorts. U.N. security officials based on Congo usually determine whether roads are safe.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday in New York that the U.N. had launched an internal review concerning the “security around the incident."

The bodies of the ambassador and the officer headed back to Italy on a plane chartered by the Italian government, as Pope Francis paid homage to the “two noble children of the Italian nation" in an unusually personal letter of condolences to the Italian president.

Eastern Congo is home to myriad rebel groups all vying for control of parts of the mineral-rich, loosely governed Central African nation that is the size of Western Europe.

“Investigations are underway to find the perpetrators of this despicable crime,” said North Kivu governor Carly Nzanzu Kasivita.

Congo’s government has blamed the killings on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the Rwandan Hutu rebel group known as FDLR. The rebel group, however, on Tuesday, denied responsibility for the attack.

“The FDLR declares that there is nothing to implicate it in the attack that resulted in the death of the Italian ambassador and asks that Congolese authorities and MONUSCO to do all they can to shed light on those responsible for this ignoble assassination,” rebel spokesman Cure Ngoma said in a statement.

The rebel group noted the attack took place in the “three antennas” area near Goma and the border of Rwanda and close to Congolese and Rwandan military positions. It blamed the killings on those forces.

More than 120 armed groups are active in eastern Congo which has not been secure for more than 25 years, according to Kivu Security Tracker, a joint project between Human Rights Watch and the Congo Research Institute to monitor armed violence in Eastern Congo.

In the specific area of the attack, several armed groups are active including the FDLR, the Nyatura militia and remnants of the former M23 rebels.

It’s unusual for a top diplomat to be targeted in eastern Congo, 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, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Goma, was right next to Virunga National Park.

The WFP provided the first run-down of what happened Tuesday, saying after the armed group stopped the car and killed the driver, the remaining six passengers of the convoy were forced into the bush at gunpoint. An exchange of fire ensued, it said. The ambassador and his security escort were mortally injured during the shootout and subsequently died, it said.

The four other passengers in the group, all WFP staff, have since all been accounted for after reports they had been kidnapped, the U.N. agency said.

Attanasio, who was shot in the abdomen, was transported to the U.N. Mission in Congo hospital where he died from his wounds, according to Congo’s interior ministry. The driver and police officer died at the scene.

Congo’s interior ministry said the provincial authorities of North Kivu were not aware of the presence of the Italian ambassador and therefore did not provide him with security measures. U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix said that the determination of whether roads are safe is normally made by U.N. security officials in the country.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it will spare no effort to find out exactly what happened in the tragic attack.

In Rome, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio planned to brief Parliament Wednesday on the attack and cautioned against premature reconstructions of what transpired. Rome prosecutors have opened an investigation, which is done whenever an Italian citizen is killed overseas.

Lawmakers observed a moment of silence in the lower Chamber of Deputies, and flags flew at half-staff on government buildings as tributes poured in for the two men. In a front-page obituary in leading Corriere della Sera, the foreign ministry secretary general, Elisabetta Belloni, said Attanasio firmly believed that through multilateral diplomacy, he could help make the world a better place.

The attack occurred in the same area where two Britons were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in 2018, though they were released days later.

Eastern Congo remains one of the most insecure parts of the expansive country. More than 2,000 civilians were killed last year in eastern Congo provinces by armed rebel groups, according to U.N. reports last week.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission has been working toward reducing its more than 17,000-troop presence in the country and handing over its security work to Congolese authorities.

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Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. AP journalist Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.