Murder of Italian diplomat jolts DR Congo’s security priorities

Saturday February 27 2021

The medical team picks up the bodies of Italian ambassador, his bodyguard and driver after they were killed on February 22, 2021, in Goma, DRC. PHOTO | AFP


The government of President Felix Tshisekedi has ordered that ambassadors and other senior diplomats accredited to Kinshasa will only travel to the countryside after being granted permission by the government following the killing of Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio, his Italian bodyguard Vittorio Lacovacci, and Congolese UN driver Mustapha Milambo on Monday in North Kivu

The president also pledged “to strengthen security in the red zones — parts of the DRC, considered to be at high risk,” as the United Nations Security Council weighed in with calls for thorough investigation into the circumstances of the killing.

President Tshikesedi on Tuesday met with his top security chiefs including military officers, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Director General of the Directorate General of Immigration as well as his special advisor on security to analyse the events and the security situation in North Kivu.

The world has always known that eastern Democratic Republic Congo was one of the most violent places anywhere. But international attention on the precarious situation there had waned until the killings on Monday.

The envoy was shot this past Monday when the World Food Programme three-car convoy he was travelling in was ambushed by gunmen, three kilometres from the commune of Kiwanja, in the territory of Rutshuru, where he was headed.

Mr Attanasio’s body was flown to Italy on Wednesday where he was buried on Thursday.


Authorities in the DR Congo are now scrambling to understand whether they were victims of circumstances or the diplomat was targeted. Initial reports say the gunmen tried to kidnap the passengers before a gunfight ensued.

On Wednesday, President Félix Tshisekedi directed an investigation into the murder, which involves the highest ranking foreign diplomat in the country under Tshisekedi’s tenure.

A team from Kinshasa was dispatched to support the investigations on the ground. At the same time, the president’s spokesman confirmed that an emissary of the Head of State was sent to Italy “with a message” from his Congolese counterpart, and later personally visited to console the ambassador's widow, Zakia Attanasio.

The Congolese authorities hope to quickly determine the identity of the attackers. However, the Ministry of Interior and Security had already blamed “elements” of Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels for being behind the crime.

The Hutu FDLR rebels have refuted the allegations. In a statement, the FDLR blames the Congolese and Rwandan armies, suggesting the strengthening collaboration between the two governments may be targeting the group.

“The convoy was attacked in an area near Goma on the border with Rwanda, not far from a position of the FARDC (Congolese army) and the Rwandan soldiers of the Rwandan Defence Forces,” The group charged.

“The responsibilities of this vile assassination is to be sought in the ranks of these two armies and their sponsors who have forged an unnatural alliance to perpetuate the looting of eastern DRC.”

Indeed, some analysts of the Congo insurgency, say apportioning blame on the FDLR may be premature, especially since the area is prone to multiple militia groups who often make raids for ransom.

“At this level, it is too early to designate the FDLR. It may not be the FDLR because this area is known as a kidnapping operation with ransom demand,” Nicaise Kibel Bel, researcher and author on security and military issues, based in North Kivu, told The EastAfrican on Wednesday.

The killing has elicited questions among diplomats and analysts, especially why the ambassador, supposed to be very well informed, chose to travel without an escort from the UN army (Monusco) and without the FARDC.

Nicaise Kibel recalled another double murder of United Nations experts “who had dodged the local authorities", and had been killed in the province of Kasaï Central in March 2017.

“Many Westerners arrive in the DRC and do not consider the Congo as a state. It is a serious breach to travel from Kinshasa to Goma, without giving courtesies to the provincial authorities. This killing is however deplorable and regrettable.”

Sources among Western diplomatic community say the restrictions on their travel following this incident may limit their work.

Traditionally, ambassadors should travel uninhibited in the course of their work. But the host government often retains security obligations to diplomats.

Asking for permission to travel, however, means the government also keeps tabs on the activities of the diplomats.

Attanasio’s murder occurred in Virunga National Park, an area fraught with mining activity, even though it is heavily insecure. Rangers watching over poachers routinely provide security, but they are underpaid and often with low morale.

Some western oil companies, including Italian ones, have worked in the area in the past, running into problems with the government of Joseph Kabila.

In the grip of a hundred foreign and national armed gangs for more than 20 years, the eastern part of the DRC is an area which stirs up concern. Charles Michel, President of the European Council recalled "the urgency of ensuring peace in the East of the DRC."

At the sub-regional level, the Congolese Head of State and his Rwandan counterpart have recently enhanced their security cooperation in order to secure North and South Kivu.