Five wildlife rangers and a driver guarding one of the world’s most important refuges for mountain gorillas and other critically endangered species have been killed in an ambush.
Authorities in the Virunga National Park, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s famed haven for gorillas, said the men were gunned down by militia men early on Monday near the border with Uganda.
“Virunga National Park is deeply saddened to confirm reports of an attack on our staff today,” the park said in a statement.
“Five Virunga rangers and a staff driver were killed during an ambush in the Central Sector of the Park. A sixth ranger was also wounded.”
Joel Malembe, a park spokesman, said the team had been driving through the bush between the sectors of Lulimba and Ishasha when a group of militia men opened fire on their vehicles at about 6 AM local time.
Cosma Wilungula, the director of the DRC’s national parks, said the attackers were from one of the country’s “Mai Mai” militia groups, which were initially founded in the 1990s to fight cross-border attacks from Rwanda.
More than 150 rangers have been killed protecting the Virunga national park, which covers an area three times the size of Luxembourg, over the past twenty years.
Virunga was established established in 1925 and describes itself as Africa’s oldest national park.
Covering more than 3000 square miles of wilderness on the Rwandan and Ugandan border, it is one of Africa’s most diverse habitats and is home to about a quarter of the world’s surviving 880 mountain gorillas.
It is also a refuge for significant populations of eastern lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, okapis, lions, elephants and hippos.
But it has been ravaged by the unrest sweeping Congo’s troubled North Kivu province, with dozens of armed groups preying on the local population and battling for control of rich reserves of timber, gold and other resources.
They also often poach animals in the park for bush meat.
Ranger outposts are regularly attacked and it not unknown for rangers and militias to fight battles with automatic weapons to for several hours. Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s Belgian director, was shot and wounded in a road ambush between the park and Goma, the capital of North Kivu, in 2014.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen increasing instability of the past year, after Joseph Kabila, the president, refused to step down at the end of his term in 2016.
Mr Kabila has agreed to fresh elections in January, but the United Nations and aid agencies have warned that escalating violence and lawlessness threatens to spiral out of control.
Violence has escalated in the east of the country in particular since February, raising fears of a return to the horrific civil wars that claimed millions of lives in the region between 1998 and 2008.
A Mai Mai militia was blamed for shooting dead a Catholic priest in North Kivu over the weekend.
The United Nations has said over 5.1 million people have been displaced in recent years and 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, putting the scale of the crisis on a par with Syria.
The national government has rejected that description of the situation and has said it will not attend a United Nations pledging conference to raise money to deal with the crisis in Geneva on Friday.
The United Nations has 15,000 peace keepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making it the largest peace keeping mission in the world.