Five wildlife rangers and their driver have been killed in the Virunga National Park, a haven for endangered gorillas that has been under threat from poachers and rebel fighters for years.
The team in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) came under gunfire around 6 am local time (0400 GMT) while travelling to a base near the Ishasha border crossing with neighbouring Uganda, Reuters reported.
Speaking to the AFP news agency, park spokesman Joel Malembe confirmed: “We have sadly lost six rangers.” He said the gunmen were from one of Congo’s Mai-Mai militias, which first formed to resist Rwandan invasions in the late 1990s.
Located in Congo’s North Kivu province, the park is one of the most important conservation sites in the world, covering 7,800 square kilometres (3,011 miles) — three times the size of Luxembourg.
The park, its rangers and the gorillas they protect are under constant threat from poachers as well as armed groups vying for power in the aftermath of a devastating civil war that claimed five million lives from 1994-2003.
Earlier this month, one ranger told the Guardian: “This is not an easy profession. Losing your friends and colleagues is very painful. But we chose to do this, and we know the risks.”
The guards became famous in the 2014 film, Virunga, which followed the stories of four people trying to protect the endangered gorillas from the threats of poaching, war and the destruction of their habitat through oil exploration.
Last month, 11 people were estimated to have been killed by rebels from a Ugandan Islamist group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) during a raid on the city of Beni, close to Virunga, Mayor Nyonyi Bwanakawa told Reuters.
The government and United Nations have blamed the spree of massacres near Beni since 2014 on the ADF, but independent experts say some Congolese soldiers have also been involved.
Beni is one of several hotspots in eastern and central Congo where mounting violence has raised fears the massive Central African country could slide back into civil war.