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Gunmen Kill Pope’s Ambassador in Burundi

December 29, 2003 GMT

BUJUMBURA, Burundi AP) _ Gunmen killed the pope’s ambassador in Burundi on Monday, firing on his car as he was returning from a funeral, and the country’s president said the envoy was deliberately targeted.

Archbishop Michael Courtney was shot in the head, shoulder and a limb and died during surgery at Prince Louis Rwagasore Hospital, a hospital official said.

President Domitien Ndayizeye said the 58-year-old Courtney was deliberately targeted. ``It was not an accident; he was killed,″ Ndayizeye told reporters. He and other officials, however, did not say what the motive for the killing might be. The gunmen had killed a soldier at the site just before the car arrived.

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The shooting took place in an area about 30 miles south of the capital, Bujumbura, on Lake Tanganyika that is a stronghold of rebels of the National Liberation Forces, or FLN, the only group that has not signed a peace deal with the transitional government. The FLN denied responsibility in the killing.

``The assailants had planned to kill him,″ Annicet Niyongabo, governor of Bururi province, said. ``They first fired into the tires and then approached to execute him. They could not mistake the car for another one because it was flying the Vatican flag.″

After learning the news, Pope John Paul II turned to prayer and offered his deep condolences over Courtney’s death, the Vatican said in a statement late Monday.

``Monsignor Courtney was transported with great difficulty to the closest hospital in Bujumbura, but never regained consciousness due to his grave wounds,″ according to a Vatican statement. ``The extensive hemorrhaging, operated on after the ambush, could not be stopped,″ and Courtney died during emergency surgery.

The attack occurred just outside Minago in Bururi province on the main road north toward Bujumbura. Courtney was returning from farther south in the province where he had attended the funeral of a Burundian priest whose body had been repatriated from Rome two days earlier, Emile Hicintuka, a local official said.

Major violence has torn Burundi for a decade. Conflict broke out in 1993, when rebels from the Hutu majority took up arms after Tutsi paratroopers assassinated the country’s first democratically elected leader, a Hutu.

Three rebel groups, including the largest, have signed peace deals with the government, agreeing to join the transitional government and integrate their forces into a new national army. However, the National Liberation Forces, or FNL, continues to fight.

Pasteur Habimana, an FNL spokesman, denied charges that the group was responsible for Courtney’s death.

``We knew where he lived ... We could have killed him if we wished. We strongly condemn those who killed him,″ he said.

Maj. Kandeke, the army commander in the region where the shooting occurred, said the FNL had attacked the market in Minago on Saturday. ``We are still fighting them,″ he said.

Courtney was one of the church’s most experienced diplomats with over 30 years of work in the church. Born in 1945 in Nenagh, 85 miles southwest of Dublin, Courtney was ordained in 1968.

He worked as a parish priest throughout Ireland until 1976, according to the Vatican’s 2000 announcement of his appointment in Burundi. He then moved to Rome and entered the Pontifical Diplomatic Academy.

``I am shocked by at the murder of Archbishop Courtney. I condemn this horrific attack on the archbishop and express condolences to his family,″ said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in Dublin.

Beginning in 1980, he was a papal representative in South Africa, then in Zimbabwe, Senegal, India, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Egypt, the 2000 announcement said. Prior to going to Burundi, he worked for five years as special envoy in Strasbourg, France, monitoring the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.