KINSHASA (Reuters) - Two park rangers and a soldier were killed in a firefight with armed militia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where rebels have transformed Africa's oldest national park into a war zone, officials said on Friday.
Congo's rugged eastern borderlands are among the world's most biodiverse areas and are home to one of the last remaining populations of mountain gorillas. But they have also been at the center of nearly two decades of armed conflict, which have left millions dead.
Rangers from Congo's national parks authority (ICCN) were on patrol with an army escort on Thursday when they were ambushed by local Mayi Mayi militia, Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, said.
"They came under attack from a quite substantial Mayi Mayi unit ... It was very heavy fire received. Two of our rangers were killed on the spot and one soldier. Three others were injured," de Merode told Reuters.
The attack took place on the western side of Lake Edward, near the border with Uganda, and may have been linked to the arrest of 10 Mayi Mayi fighters last week by the ICCN, according to de Merode.
Originally traditional warriors who said they protected their communities with the help of supernatural powers, many Mayi Mayi groups are now little more than mercenaries and are blamed for some of the conflict's worst human rights abuses.
"There is a lot of tension between the park rangers and the Mayi Mayi at the moment ... The rangers have tended to be the last to leave when areas are taken over by militia, so they bear the brunt of the violence," he said.
Rangers have regularly found themselves caught in the crossfire between the army and Congolese rebels, who use Virunga's thick forests and mountainous terrain as their base.
The region's famous mountain gorillas are also at risk with fighting raging around them, although de Merode said park officials had registered two gorilla births since the latest outbreak of violence began in March.
(Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Joe Bavier and Alison Williams)