updated 12/31/2003 2:57:17 PM ET 2003-12-31T19:57:17

A Roman Catholic leader and an army general on Wednesday accused a holdout Hutu rebel group of killing the Vatican’s ambassador to Burundi.

But a rebel spokesman blamed the Burundi army for the shooting death of Archbishop Michael Courtney. He also threatened one of the rebels’ accusers, Archbishop Simon Ntamwana, with unspecified action if he didn’t leave the country.

“We did not kill the papal nuncio as we had no reason to reproach him. The army killed him, and those who are accusing our group are those who simply want to tarnish our image,” Pasteur Habimana, spokesman for the National Liberation Forces, or FNL, said.

“We are very clear and serious that he (Ntamwana) has to leave the country within 30 days. This is our ultimatum, or the future will be the judge,” he said.

At a funeral Mass at Regina Mundi cathedral in Bujumbura, Courtney’s longtime colleague Bishop Christophe Pierre, the papal ambassador to Uganda, called on the congregation to ask themselves why the Pope’s representative had been killed.

President Domitien Ndayizeye and other officials of the transitional government meant to lead Burundi back to peace after a 10-year civil war attended the service before Courtney’s body was flown to Ireland, his country of origin.

Courtney, 58, died Monday in a Bujumbura hospital from wounds received when gunmen hours earlier ambushed his vehicle as he returned from southern Burundi.

Pierre, who said he had known professionally Courtney for 25 years, called him “a simple man with a great heart” who had been committed to the peace process in Burundi since his arrival in the tiny central African nation three years ago.

Both Ntamwana, head of Burundi’s Catholic episcopal conference, and army chief of staff Brig. Gen. Germain Niyoyankana on Wednesday accused the FNL, the only rebel group in Burundi that has refused to enter peace negotiations, of killing Courtney.

Ntamwana claimed that Courtney had been “executed” in a “long-prepared assassination.”

The army chief said after inspecting the site where Courtney’s white Land Rover Discovery was fired on about 30 miles south of Bujumbura that the “army had proof the FNL rebel group killed the papal nuncio,” or ambassador.

“The local inhabitants and the chiefs said they saw how things happened,” he told reporters. He said a group of 30 rebels carried out the ambush, but he did not elaborate.

The rebel spokesman, Habimana, called both charges “a bluff to the international community” and accused the army of the killing. There were skirmishes last weekend between government troops and FNL forces in the area where Courtney was shot.

More than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the Burundi conflict. Fighting started in October 1993 after paratroopers from the Tutsi minority that had controlled Burundi since independence in 1962 assassinated the country’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a member of the Hutu majority.

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