A female park ranger was killed trying to protect two British tourists after gunmen ambushed their vehicle in Congo’s Virunga National Park.
The woman, named locally as Rachel Katumwa, was gunned down as the two Britons were dragged away and marched through the forest by their attackers, who are now demanding a $200,000 ransom for their safe return,
Ms Katumwa is understood to be the first female ranger to be killed in the park, which has been riven by violence in recent years.
Tributes were paid to the 25-year-old ranger on Saturday as efforts by the Congolese Army continued to find the kidnapped Britons.
Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga National Park director, said Ms Katumwa was one of the Park’s 26 female rangers. He added that she was “committed, showing true bravery in her work”.
One of Ms Katumwa’s colleagues at Virunga National Park described her as “a devoted conservationist who died in the line of duty’”.
Another added: “Her only thought would have been the safety and security of visitors to the park who were on the convoy.
“Unfortunately armed robbers attacked as the convoy approached Rumangabo. Following the ecoguard’s death, two British citizens were taken away, along with their driver.”
The driver, Guystave Mbiye, who was wounded during the attack, was last night recovering in hospital after being freed by the gang.
Mr Mbiye, a father of five, told The Sunday Telegraph: “I was driving from Kibumba, heading to the volcano around 9am with a young British couple and a ranger when four heavily armed guys jumped on the road and started shooting in our direction.”
After killing Ms Katumwa the gang forced the two Britons and Mr Mbiye to march through the dense forest for several hours until abandoning him, with a message for the authorities.
“One of them said to me ‘I will leave you here, if the find you, tell them we need $200,000 and if they keep on chasing us, we will kill these two’.” said Mr Mbiye, 45.
“It was very difficult for me to move as I had to much pain, but I forced myself back, until I was found by FARDC soldiers. It’s only by God’s grace that why I’m still alive.”
The gunmen opened fire on the convoy of vehicles shortly after it entered the national park, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Friday morning.
The attack took place near Kibumba, a village within the park, eight miles from Goma, the capital city of eastern Congo’s troubled North Kivu province, one of the most volatile parts of the country.
The Virunga National Park is home to between a quarter and a third of the world’s highly endangered Mountain Gorilla, but it is also the hideout of a dozen militias and rebel outfits from three different countries, remnants of Congo’s bloody civil war, as well as bands of poachers and criminal gangs.
Together they have made the park the most dangerous in the world for rangers and conservationists to work in, with some 170 wildlife rangers killed there in the past 20 years, including five who were murdered along with their driver after an ambush last month.
Although a number of Congolese nationals have been abducted in the park in recent years, it is the first time in nearly 20 years that an attempt has been made to seize Western tourists, officials said.
The kidnapping took place just a few hundred yards from an Army base, where soldiers from the 802nd Regiment are stationed, prompting criticism of the slow response time by the troops.
Zubaya Faustin, a local politician, said: “More should have been done to support the park guards.”
A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘We are in close contact with the authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo following an incident involving two British nationals and our staff are providing support to their families.’
The Foreign Office warns against all travel to the area due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation and only a handful of British tourists travel there each year.
John Murton, the British ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, offered his condolences to the family of Ms Katumwa in a tweet on Sunday, although he made no mention of the Britons kidnapped.
In a tweet in French and English, he said: “My very sincere condolences to the family of Rachel Makisa Baraka. Condolences also to the magnificient staff at Virunga National Park for all their bravery and determination in protecting local communities and wildlife. Thank you.”