Five park rangers and a driver have been killed in a gun attack in a wildlife sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A sixth ranger was also wounded in the shooting at Virunga National Park, home to critically endangered mountain gorillas.
No group has claimed responsibility but suspicion immediately fell on rebel militias that are active in and around the famed Unesco World Heritage site.
The park, in eastern Congo on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, is home to about half of the roughly 900 wild mountain gorillas left in the world.
The rare species is threatened by poachers and deforestation, caused in part by the charcoal industry.
More than 150 rangers have been killed protecting the gorillas over the last two decades, but Thursday morning’s attack was the deadliest in the park’s history.
The seven workers were ambushed and fired upon at about 6am local time (4am GMT) as they were travelling to a base near the Ugandan border, said national parks director Cosma Wilungula.
In a statement, park authorities said they were “deeply saddened” by the deaths, which came a week after another ranger was shot dead during a gun battle with rebels.
Rangers are typically recruited from surrounding villages to protect the 3,000-square-mile park from rebel groups, poachers and local bandits who exploit the area’s resources.
Gorillas’ bodies have been found after execution-style killings that authorities say are intended to intimidate park workers.
Congo’s dense forests near the Rwandan and Ugandan borders saw some of the fiercest fighting during civil wars that killed millions – mostly from hunger and disease – at the end of the 20th Century.
The region has been troubled by periodic insurrections since then.
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