At least 18 people were killed, including 12 rangers who came to the aid of civilians, Friday in an attack perpetrated by an armed group inside the Virunga national park, natural and tourist jewel in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In addition to the twelve rangers, their two drivers and four civilians died in the unclaimed attack north of Goma, a park spokesman told an AFP journalist.
A security source has for its part made a report of 13 eco-guards and five civilians killed.
There were also “wounded, some of whom are fighting for their survival,” the park said in a statement, referring to a day to mark with a “black stone” for this site classified as World Heritage by Unesco and “the residents of neighboring communities “.
It is one of the heaviest attacks targeting some 700 Virunga rangers, 176 of whom have been killed in 20 years, in this region of Kivu destabilized by the violence of armed groups for a quarter of a century.
In its statement, the park said the attack was carried out near its headquarters in Rumangabo, in the mountains of Rutshuru territory.
“All the information available at this stage indicates that it was an attack against civilians. The guards were not the target and died while assisting the civilian vehicle which had been taken under fire from the attackers” , details the press release.
Virunga Park claims it “is unable to provide details on the motivations and identity of the attackers”, and warns of “the spread of rumors and unrelated information verified. “
Covering an area of 7,769 km2, the Virunga cover part of the province of North Kivu (almost 60,000 km2), especially along the border with Rwanda and Uganda.
– Active armed groups –
The oldest natural reserve in Africa unseen in 1925, the park is a sanctuary for mountain gorillas.
The great apes are one of its tourist attractions, with the spectacular ascent of the Nyiaragongo volcano, and a nocturnal bivouac in the red glow of its active crater at more than 3,000 m above sea level.
But the park is also the field of action for dozens of armed groups active in the region, such as the Rwandan Hutu rebels of the FDLR, very present in the attack area.
Trusteeship Institute of Virunga, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) has identified all the threats to its natural jewel: “illegal production of charcoal”, “poaching of large mammals, especially the hippopotamus” , “illegal fishing” as well as the “presence of armed groups” and the “invasion by illegal diggers of minerals”.
In May 2018, Virunga Park had suspended its tourist activity, following the kidnapping of two British tourists, who were finally released. An eco-guard was killed in this attack.
The park had reopened its activity to tourists in February 2019.
In 2014, the park director, Emmanuel de Mérode, was injured in an armed attack.
That same year, the park had again gained notoriety in the world with the documentary Virunga produced in 2014 by the American actor Leonardo Di Caprio.
The Virunga company has also embarked on the construction of hydroelectric power stations, for the production and distribution of electricity in Goma and its region.
The visits had been suspended since March 19 as part of the preventive measures taken by the authorities in the face of the coronavirus epidemic.
“However, the personnel and the technical teams are the only ones authorized to circulate on these areas, while respecting the measures advocated by our leaders”, specified the body responsible for the park.