Virunga National Park, February 23, 2021
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An Italian embassy official and a World Food Programme driver were also killed in the ambush which took place near Nyiragongo volcano in Virunga Park where mountain forests are home to dozens of armed groups, some of them linked to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
While the death of the ambassador is the highest profile killing in a region that borders Rwanda, there has been a steep rise in violence across much of eastern Congo during the past year, according to Kivu Security Tracker (KST), an initiative by Human Rights Watch and the Congo Research Group that monitors such attacks. A new KST report published on Monday identified 122 distinct armed groups across four of Congo’s eastern provinces. Congo also has a record high of 5.5 million people displaced across the country, according to the report.
More than 2,000 civilians were killed in three eastern provinces last year in attacks mainly attributed to armed groups, the United Nations reported this month. One of the worst massacres in Virunga Park’s recent history occurred last May when 12 rangers were among 17 people killed in an ambush on the same road the ambassador was travelling between Goma and Rutshuru. The park has for years been the site of repeated attacks from rebels and militia groups, along with poachers and loggers, leading to the killing of hundreds of rangers. The most recent attack was in January, when six park rangers on a foot patrol were killed in another ambush.
Four armed groups—the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Alliance des patriotes pour un Congo libre et souverain (APCLS), and the Nduma Defense of Congo-Renovated (NDC-R)—along with the national army account for over a third of all incidents and half of all civilians killed in eastern Congo, according to the KST report, which added that the ADF is the biggest threat responsible for far more killings of civilians (37%) than any other armed group.
The violence is driven by long simmering regional tensions involving neighboring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. These dynamics have a history of compounding local conflicts over land and resources, especially when mixed with political and customary power struggles.