NAIROBI – Italy’s ambassador to Congo, as well as his Italian bodyguard and a Congolese driver, were killed Monday when unknown assailants attempted to kidnap them in a restive part of the country, according to local officials.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry issued a brief statement confirming the deaths of the two Italians, who it said were traveling with a U.N. peacekeeping mission convoy. Pictures posted on social media by local journalists showed a damaged vehicle belonging to the World Food Program (WFP) and the ambassador, Luca Attanasio, lying wounded on a truck of the nearby Virunga National Park.

The governor of North Kivu province, where the attack took place, told Reuters that the assailants stopped the convoy by firing warning shots, then killed the driver and attempted to lead the Italians into a forest by the side of the road. Park rangers then opened fire, and the two Italians were killed in the ensuing melee.

Attanasio, 43, had been in charge of Italy’s mission to Congo since 2017 and was made ambassador in 2019. He leaves behind a wife and three young daughters. His guard was identified as Vittorio Iacovacci, 30.

The driver’s name has not been released, but WFP officials said he was a member of their staff. The organization’s statement also said the team was conducting a field visit to a school feeding program in the town of Rutshuru.

The area around Virunga has been a hotbed of violence for decades, and the village in which Monday’s attack took place is the same one from which two British tourists were briefly kidnapped in 2019, prompting authorities to close the park to tourists for nine months. Six rangers were killed in an attack last month, adding to a toll of around 200 who have been slain in attacks by armed groups.

Virunga is located amid a string of volcanoes that straddle Congo’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda. Armed elements from all three countries have competed over the region’s mineral riches and other resources for decades. The ongoing humanitarian crisis there has brought new targets for moneymaking by way of kidnapping for ransom.

“It was with great shock and immense sorrow that I learned of the death today of our Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo and of a Carabinieri policeman,” Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in a statement. “The circumstances of this brutal attack are still unclear and no effort will be spared to shed light on what happened.”