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The killing of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the lifting of U.S. Treasury sanctions against an Israeli businessman accused of mining-related corruption in the final hours of the Trump administration has again focused international attention on the interlocking crises in the DRC.
Italian Amb. Luca Attanasio was killed when the World Food Programme caravan he was part of was stopped en route to a school feeding program in Rutshuru, near Goma, in eastern Congo. (His driver and bodyguard were also killed.) The DRC authorities are claiming that the perpetrators were part of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR); the militia denies it. The FDLR, one of some 120 separate armed groups [PDF] operating in eastern Congo, is associated with the Rwandan cabal that led the 1994 Rwandan genocide; Congolese officials frequently blame it for atrocities in eastern Congo.
Dan Gertler, an Israeli mining merchant closely associated with former DRC dictator Laurent Kabila and his son-turned-successor, Joseph Kabila, in 2017 was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department after being widely accused of staggering corruption. Those sanctions excluded him from the American financial system and blocked access to his American accounts. The Trump administration in its final hours in office quietly eased those sanctions. Their easing, while not necessarily illegal, violated usual Treasury procedures and has provoked outrage among human rights activists in the United States, the DRC, and elsewhere. Critics see the reprieve as a part of President Trump's wave of pardons to criminals with good connections. According to the media, the Biden administration is likely to reverse the move.
Eastern Congo is a stark example of great wealth—mostly based on the strategic minerals that have made Mr. Gertler rich—amidst grinding poverty. Militias and gangs, allegedly with ties to neighboring Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, are active. Ethnic conflict is widespread. Criminality, sometimes with political links, is ubiquitous. Ebola recurs; new cases have been reported this month. Government at the national and provincial levels is notorious for corruption and appears largely alienated from the people who live there. The DRC is far from fulfilling the basic requirement of sovereignty—guaranteeing the security of its citizens.
The ambassador's reputation was that he was devoted to his humanitarian mission, that he was judicious, and did not take unnecessary risks. The road traveled by the convoy was regarded as safe. So, what group killed the Italian ambassador? It may have been by a group with a political agenda. But the event also has elements of being primarily a criminal enterprise: after capturing the ambassador, the perpetrators moved him into the bush, in what is believed to have been an attempted kidnapping. He was killed only after security forces attempted to rescue him.