Italy Mourns an Ambassador and His Bodyguard, Killed in Congo

Italians mourned on Tuesday for Luca Attanasio, the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was killed in an ambush with his bodyguard and driver in a humanitarian convoy with the World Food Program.

The national media were full of tributes to 43-year-old Attanasio, who was hailed as the youthful and humanitarian face of Italian diplomacy.

The murder of Mr Attanasio hit a deep nerve in Italy that had come under pressure last year due to the pandemic and a political crisis that caused weeks of uncertainty. Many Italians remain sensitive to the fate of their nationals abroad even after the brutal murder of a doctoral student, Giulio Regeni, in Egypt in 2016.

Pictures of Mr. Attanasio, surrounded by Congolese children or posing with his wife and three young daughters, dominated the front pages of Italian newspapers.

“Luca and Vittorio. The best of Italy, ”said the headline of the Turin-based daily La Stampa, referring to Vittorio Iacovacci, the 30-year-old Italian military policeman who died with the ambassador and his Congolese driver Mustapha Milambo from the World Food Program.

“Yesterday I was unable to express to his family the deep sorrow of the entire Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our sincere closeness,” wrote Elisabetta Belloni, Secretary General of the Ministry, in an editorial in the daily Corriere della Sera. “Because silence and emotions prevailed.”

“Luca was a generous person who wanted to do good,” said Ms. Belloni. “He believed that Italy – together with the European Union and the United Nations – could play an important role in promoting development and peace. He dedicated himself to this goal with humility, but also with absolute commitment and readiness. “

On Tuesday, Pope Francis expressed his condolences to the families of the victims, the diplomatic corps and the military police “for the disappearance of these servants of peace and justice”.

Prosecutors in Rome opened an investigation into the accident and sent a team of investigators to Goma, the capital of North Kivu, near where the murders took place. The President and top officials of the Democratic Republic of the Congo pledged to investigate the tragedy that took place in an area known for violence near the border with Rwanda.

Dozens of armed groups take part in kidnappings and acts of violence in the region. Rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda are the largest foreign armed group operating in the Congo. The rebel group on Tuesday denied any involvement in the attack, saying their men were far from the area.

On Tuesday, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi and his wife met with Attanasio’s wife Zakia Seddiki, the president of a non-governmental organization in the Congo that helps women and children in need.

In a statement read on national television, Mr Tshisekedi said the government had sent a team of investigators to Goma “so that these heinous crimes could be investigated as soon as possible”.

It was unclear whether Mr Attanasio and his bodyguard were shot dead as part of a failed kidnapping attempt, or whether he was murdered during an exchange of fire between the armed group, park guards and a nearby Congolese army unit.

Mr. Attanasio traveled to Rutshuru in the north to visit a World Food Program project to feed school children, partly funded by the Italian government, in a two-car convoy. The World Food Program said the road they took had previously been cleared for travel without a security escort.

The night before the attack, Mr. Attanasio and Mr. Iacovacci dined with a small group of Italian expatriates in Goma.

“He said he admired our work on the front lines and was proud of us here,” said Miriam Ruscio, the Italian program director of the AVSI aid group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who attended the dinner, of Mr. Attanasio.

“It is devastating to know he’s gone,” said Ms. Ruscio.

In a video interview published by the Italian news agency Ansa, Salvatore Attanasio, the ambassador’s father said: “We are devastated, it is an immeasurable loss.”

He added, “These are unjust things that should never happen.”

Steve Wembi contributed to coverage from Kinshasa.

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