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By Benoit Nyemba
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Five park rangers were killed in a joint operation with the army to rescue an American journalist and three park rangers, who went missing in a wildlife reserve in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a local official said on Sunday.
Gunmen attacked the group late on Friday in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in Mambasa territory. Some others in the group, including two Dutch journalists, escaped.
Cosma Wilungula, the head of Congo's park service, confirmed that the journalist and rangers had been rescued from a group of Mai Mai militia fighters involved in mining gold inside the reserve.
The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the reports, but did not identify the journalist who was rescued because of privacy concerns.
"We are aware of reports that the U.S. citizen reported kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been found safe," a State Department official said.
"The U.S. Department of State has no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment."
Mambasa administrator Alfred Bongwalanga said security forces and park rangers had launched a rescue operation that located the missing members of the group. It was not immediately clear how the rangers were killed.
"There are five dead. They are all park rangers who were involved in the operation. They had been backing the army," he told Reuters by telephone.
While Wilungula said two rangers had been killed in the initial attack he had no information on casualties during the rescue.
"It's a zone that's not secure for us ... They were heavily armed and the rangers found themselves in an inferior position," Wilungula said, referring to the initial attack.
Eastern Congo has been the theatre of numerous wars and uprisings over the last two decades, and rebels, militia fighters and bandits still present a security risk in many areas.
Park rangers trying to protect dwindling populations of elephants and gorillas often clash with poachers and other armed groups who exploit minerals, wildlife and other resources.
Later on Sunday Congo's Virunga National Park said that one of its rangers, Dudunyabo Machongani Célestin, had died following an ambush by Mai Mai militia in an area of the park west of Lake Edward.
(Writing by Joe Bavier; additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Kinshasa and Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Editing by Greg Mahlich and Sandra Maler)