ROME – Pope Francis has sent a message to Italy’s president conveying his sorrow for the death of country’s ambassador to Democratic Republic of the Congo, who died Monday in an apparent kidnapping attempt.

In a Feb. 23 telegram addressed to President Sergio Mattarella, Pope Francis said that it was “With pain I learned of the tragic attack that happened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” during which Italian ambassador to the Congo, Luca Attanasio, Italian military policeman Vittorio Iacovacci, and their Congolese driver Mustapha Milambo, were killed.

“I express my heartfelt sorrow to their families, to the diplomatic corps, and the police force for the departure of these servants of peace and right,” he said, calling Attanasio, 43, “a person of remarkable human and Christian qualities, always a prodigy in establishing fraternal and cordial relations, for the restoration of serene and concordant relations within that African country.”

Francis also remembered Iacovacci, 31, and who was supposed to get married in June, as “an expert and generous in his service and near to beginning a new family.”

“While I raise prayers of suffrage for the eternal rest of these noble sons of the Italian nation, I urge trust in the providence of God, in whose hands nothing is lost of the good done, even more so when it is confirmed with suffering,” he said, offering his blessing “to the families and colleagues of the victims and to all those who weep for them.”

Attanasio, Iacovacci, and Milambo were killed during a firefight Monday near the city of Goma, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s North Kivu province, which for years has been ravaged by conflict.

According to a statement from UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric, the incident happened while representatives from the UN World Food Program (WFP) were traveling from Goma to Rutshuru, in eastern Congo, where they were planning to visit a WFP school feeding program.

The group, which traveled in two separate vehicles, consisted of five WFP employees who were accompanying Attanasio and his security escort.

After roughly an hour on the road, the vehicles were stopped by what Dujarric described as “an armed group,” and all passengers were asked to get out of the cars, after which Milambo was killed.

The remaining six passengers, including Attanasio, were then forced at gunpoint into brush along the side of the road. A firefight ensued, during which both Attanasio and Iacovacci were fatally shot.

Indicating that the motive for the incident was an attempted kidnapping, Dujarric said the other four passengers evaded their “captors” and are all “safe and accounted for.”

Attanasio leaves behind his parents, his wife, and their three daughters.

In comments to Italian news agency ANSA, Attanasio’s father Salvatore said his son was happy about his assignment to the DRC.

“He told us what the objectives (of the mission) were,” Salvatore said, recalling how his son “was always a person who focused on other people. He always did good. He was driven by high ideals and was capable of involving anyone in his projects.”

Salvatore described his son as an honest and fair man, who never fought with anyone.

When he learned of his son’s death, Salvatore said it was like “the memories of a lifetime passed by in 30 seconds. The world caved in on us.”

“Things like this are unjust. They should not happen,” he said, adding that “life is over for us now. It is necessary to think of the grandchildren…these three kids had green pastures ahead of them with a father like that. Now they don’t know what has happened.”

In the wake of Monday’s tragic events, the UN Department of Safety and Security is expected to review the incident, Dujarric said, adding that both the DRC and Italian authorities will also be making their own probes.

In a statement earlier this month, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warned that there had been a significant increase in attacks in civilian areas in eastern Congo, where Attanasio and the WFP representatives were traveling.

According to UN figures, nearly 850 civilians were killed by militants belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces in Ituri and North Kivu provinces in 2020. Between Dec. 11, 2020 and Jan. 10, 2021 alone, at least 150 were killed in eastern Congo and some 100 others were kidnapped.

The violence has also caused a massive humanitarian crisis in which some 5 million people in the east have been displaced and 900,000 have fled to neighboring countries.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen