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Italy Mourns an Ambassador and His Bodyguard, Killed in Congo

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

The national media were packed with tributes to Mr. Attanasio, 43, who was lauded as the youthful and humanitarian face of Italian diplomacy, and with detailed accounts of his final hours before his death on Monday.

Mr. Attanasio’s killing struck a deep nerve in Italy, which has been under strain over the past year because of the deadly coronavirus pandemic and a political crisis that created weeks of turmoil and uncertainty. Many Italians also remain sensitive to the fate of their nationals abroad following the brutal killing of a graduate student, Giulio Regeni, in Egypt in 2016.

Pictures of Mr. Attanasio smiling and surrounded by Congolese children or posing with his wife and three small daughters, dominated the front pages of Italy’s dailies and their websites.

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

“His Africa,” read the headline on the front page of the left-leaning daily Il Manifesto, showing a selfie taken by the ambassador, his right thumb up, with two Congolese children.

“Yesterday I couldn’t express to his family the deep sorrow of the entire Foreign Ministry and our sincere closeness,” Elisabetta Belloni, the ministry’s secretary general, wrote in an editorial in the daily Corriere della Sera. “Because silence and emotion prevailed.”

“Luca was a generous person who wanted to do good,” Ms. Belloni said. “He believed that Italy — with the European Union and the United Nations — could play an important role to promote development and peace. To this goal he devoted himself with humbleness, but also with absolute commitment and preparedness.”

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

Prosecutors in Rome started an investigation into the accident, sending a team of investigators to Goma, the capital of North Kivu, near where the killings took place. The president and the highest-ranking officials of the Democratic Republic of Congo pledged to get to the bottom of the tragedy, which took place in an area near the border with Rwanda that is known for violence.

Dozens of armed groups compete in kidnappings and violent actions in the area, with rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the biggest foreign armed group operating in Congo. The rebel group on Tuesday denied any involvement in the attack, saying that their men were far from the area.

On Tuesday, the Congolese president, Félix Tshisekedi, and his wife, met with Mr. Attanasio’s wife, Zakia Seddiki, who is the president of a nongovernmental organization in Congo that helps women and children in need.

In a statement read on national TV, Mr. Tshisekedi said the government had sent a team of investigators to Goma “so that light is shed on these heinous crimes as soon as possible.”

It was unclear whether Mr. Attanasio and his bodyguard were shot as part of a kidnapping attempt gone wrong, or whether he was murdered during an exchange of gunfire between the armed group, and park rangers and a Congolese Army unit nearby.

Mr. Attanasio was headed to Rutshuru, in the north, to visit a World Food Program project to feed school children, partially funded by the Italian government, in a convoy of two cars. The World Food Program said the road that they took had previously been cleared for travel without security escorts.

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,” Miriam Ruscio, the Italian head of programs for the aid group AVSI in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who attended the dinner, said of Mr. Attanasio.

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

In Mr. Attanasio’s hometown, Limbiate, near Milan, Mayor Antonio Romeo said he would name the town’s forthcoming cultural center after the ambassador.

“He was proud of his hometown in the province, and loved simple things,” Mr. Romeo said. “We will miss him dearly.”

A military plane will bring the bodies of the two Italians to Rome, where a medical team will conduct an autopsy to try to determine the cause of their death.

“We are devastated, it is an incommensurable loss,” Salvatore Attanasio, the ambassador’s father, said in a video interview published by the Italian news agency Ansa. “These are unjust things that should never ever happen.”

Steve Wembi contributed reporting from Kinshasa.

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