Park officials of Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo report a park ranger was shot and killed when their patrol was ambushed by rebel militia. Two other rangers were seriously wounded in the attack.
Three of the militiamen were also killed and one was apprehended in the firefight, said the chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode. De Merode said the attack occurred in an area of the park where government forces and M23 - another militia then operating in the area - clashed in October of last year.
The chief warden described last week’s attack as the worst in the past year.
Twenty park staff have died In similar attacks over the past three years, he said. Sixteen were killed by the members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel force opposed to the Rwandan government that has taken refuge in Congo since the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
The park rangers were securing a major public road running alongside the park, to protect the park from illegal forest destruction.
“It happened in the southern end of the park, which is a forested area around the volcanoes, just north of the city of Goma,” said de Merode. “The attack was carried out by units of FDLR.
“These are the Rwanda militias who were responsible for the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and have since taken refuge in the national park.” He said the FDLR is currently involved in the destruction of the forest for charcoal, which is why the rangers were patrolling the area.
“In the past few years, we’ve had a great many attacks because we have continuously been confronted with the situations, these aggressions by armed militias, largely because they are in the park, partly for refuge, but also to access the park’s resources, for fuel wood and charcoal, and also illegal fishing on the lake, and also poaching, and also looting vehicles” said de Merode.
Congolese living in the nearby area are in extreme danger because the FDLR are very dangerous and extremely aggressive, he said.
“They’re amongst those responsible for the attacks on the civilian population, in particular, women, who get attacked, who are often involved in transporting charcoal, and suffer terrible attacks, including rape and great bodily harm. The militias are those primarily responsible for the very high number of fatalities in eastern Congo.”
Despite more than a decade of armed conflicts in the surrounding countries, the park remains a popular destination for tourists who want to see more than 300 mountain gorillas and 20,000 hippopotamuses in their natural habitat.
Tourism in the region has not been affected, said de Merode, because park security officials restrict visitors from parts of the park where militias operate. He directs a staff of more than 400 rangers.
Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The 3,000-square mile protected natural area is operated by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s park authority in cooperation with the Congolese Institute for Natural Conservancy and the Africa Foundation.