Pope's ambassador to Burundi killed in rebel ambush

The Pope's ambassador to Burundi died yesterday when his car was ambushed by gunmen in the south of the central African country.

The Archbishop of Eanach Duin, the Most Rev Michael Courtney, 58, from County Tipperary, was returning from a funeral for a Burundian priest when he was shot three times in an ambush 25 miles south of the capital, Bujumbura, said the country's President, Domitien Ndayizeye. He died in hospital while undergoing surgery.The Vatican expressed "deep sorrow" at the diplomat's death, but would offer no details until relatives of the papal nuncio had been informed.

The army blamed the attack on Hutu rebels from the National Liberation Forces (FNL), who have refused to join the peace process in Burundi's decade-long civil war. "The nuncio was ambushedby elements of the FNL near the Minago locality," said Augustin Nzabampema, an army spokesman. The Misna missionary news agency said Dr Courtney had been travelling by car with three other passengers when gunfire from a nearby hill sprayed the vehicle. He was shot in the head, the shoulder and a limb, while another priest in the car was lightly injured. The driver and a hitchhiker were unharmed.

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

The announcement in 2000 of Dr Courtney's appointment as Burundi nuncio described him as "one of the church's most experienced diplomats", with more than 30 years of work in the church. He was born in Nenagh and briefly studied economics and law at University College Dublin, then moved on to Rome where he prepared for the priesthood and a varied diplomatic career for the Holy See. He was ordained in 1968, and worked as a parish priest around Ireland until 1976. He then moved back to Rome for postgraduate studies, and entered the Pontifical Diplomatic Academy. Beginning in 1980, he was a papal representative in South Africa, then in Zimbabwe, Senegal, India, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Egypt.

Before 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.

About 300,000 people have been killed in the civil war, in which rebels of the majority Hutu ethnic group are fighting to end the political dominance of the Tutsi minority. The main rebel group, the FDD (Forces for the Defence of Democracy), has signed a peace deal with the government, which has awarded ministerial posts to rebel leaders. But the FNL has refused to negotiate and has continued to fight. African leaders have given the FNL three months to join peace talks or be branded as outcasts.

Dr Courtney is not the first foreigner to be caught up in the Burundi unrest. In 1998, a World Food Programme staff member from Italy, Renato Ricciardi, was shot dead during a robbery at his home. In 2000, an Italian nun was shot dead and a Burundian nun travelling with her was wounded as they travelled to Mass in Gihiza, 56 miles east of Bujumbura.

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