Kidnapped UK tourists in DR Congo released

Goma (DR Congo) (AFP) –


Two British tourists who were kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been freed, the UK government and Congolese park officials said Sunday.

Their vehicle was attacked on Friday in the Virunga National Park in North Kivu province, a famed haven for gorillas and other endangered species.

Their park guard was killed and their driver was also kidnapped. The Britons were released unharmed, while the driver was injured, the British government said.

"I am delighted to announce that two British nationals who were held hostage in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been released," UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a statement.

"I pay tribute to the DRC authorities and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation for their tireless help during this terrible case.

"My thoughts are now with the family of Virunga Park ranger Rachel Makissa Baraka, who was killed during the kidnapping, and with the injured driver and the released British nationals as they recover from this traumatic incident."

A Foreign Office spokeswoman told AFP that the two Britons were not hurt and the ministry would continue to provide support to them and their families.

Park director Emmanuel de Merode, from Belgium, also paid tribute to Makissa Baraka, saying: "We are deeply saddened by the death of the eco-guard of the park, while protecting the passengers and driver.

"We want to convey our deepest condolences to her family and our sincere gratitude for her courage in the service of Congo."

According to local press reports, the Congolese army reacted quickly in their attempt to try to find the kidnapping victims.

Cosma Wilungula, head of the Congolais Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), praised the work of the "brave team" that resulted in a "quick resolution of this incident".

-- Vast and dangerous --

One of the most important conservation sites in the world, Virunga Park covers 7,800 square kilometres (3,000 miles) along a swathe of eastern DR Congo abutting the border with Uganda and Rwanda. It also covers most of Lake Edward and the Ishasha river valley.

Established in 1925, Virunga is home to about a quarter of the world's population of critically endangered mountain gorillas, as well as to eastern lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, okapis, lions, elephants and hippos.

But it is located in DR Congo's North Kivu province, where armed groups are fighting for control of territorial and natural resources, and poaching is a major threat.

Eight eco-guards at Virunga Park have died in the line of duty since the beginning of the year, the park management said.

"This sad total once again illustrates the risks that park wardens take every day to protect wildlife and the waterside communities."

On April 2, a park ranger died in an attack by armed men while guarding the site of a hydroelectric plant that is under construction.

On April 9, five rangers and a driver were killed in an ambush in the park.

Earlier in May, British NGO Global Witness published documents it said showed the Congolese government's plan to "declassify" over 20 percent of the area of ??the park to explore for oil.

Following the revelations -- denied by DR Congo's petrol and gas minister Aime Ngoi Mukena -- 33 Congolese NGOs wrote to him to express their "outrage".