NAIROBI, Kenya — Twelve rangers were among 17 people killed in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, officials said, in one of the worst massacres in the park’s recent history. The park blamed members of a Rwandan rebel group for the attack.
The rangers were on their way back to the park, the oldest in Africa, when they spotted a civilian vehicle that had been attacked and came to its defense, park officials said in a statement. But they came under “a ferociously violent and sustained ambush” about 11 a.m. on Friday near Rumangabo village, according to the statement.
Aside from the rangers killed, a driver and four civilians were shot dead. Two other civilians and four rangers were injured, with one in critical condition.
“This is a devastating day for Virunga National Park and the surrounding communities,” the park officials said.
The park said the gunmen belonged to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, one of the largest foreign armed groups in the country, whose ranks include members accused of having links to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The group did not immediately respond publicly and did not claim responsibility for the Friday attack.
Established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park, Virunga spans 3,000 square miles and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. The lush volcanic forests of the park in eastern Congo are home to unparalleled biodiversity, including forest and savanna elephants and hundreds of bird species, along with the endangered mountain gorillas.
But poaching, logging and unrest stemming from Congo’s civil wars have damaged the wildlife population and made the park vulnerable to attacks by militia groups. Hundreds of rangers among the park’s dedicated team of 700 rangers have been killed.
In 2014, unknown assailants shot and wounded the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, an internationally renowned Belgian conservationist. In May 2018, the park was closed for eight months after a female park ranger was killed and two British tourists and their driver were kidnapped.
On March 23, Virunga temporarily closed after scientific directives suggested primates might be vulnerable to complications arising from Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The park’s officials said the latest wave of violence would not deter their commitment to improving the economic and humanitarian needs of civilians living in the area surrounding the park.
“More than ever, those communities aspire to live in a climate of stability, justice and peace,” the officials said.