Rwanda mass killers armed by France

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France exported arms to the former Hutu regime in Rwanda in 1994, even though genocidal massacres of Tutsis were happening on an epic scale, says new evidence. The late President Mitterrand is quoted as saying: `In countries like that, genocide is not so important.' John Lichfield reports.

Even from the point of view of realpolitik and overriding national interest, French policy on central Africa in the 1990s has been a disaster. First Rwanda and then Zaire fell into the hands of rebel forces profoundly hostile to France and French influence in the region.

Le Figaro began articles yesterday investigating the morality and political motives of French diplomacy in the region 1990-1994, a policy driven mostly by the Socialist Francois Mitterrand. The investigations by Patrick de Saint-Exupery are all the more startling for appearing in the patriotic Le Figaro. Although they mostly blame Mitterrand, they also accuse the then centre-right government of Edouard Balladur of cravenly accepting a policy of uncompromising support of the murderous Hutu regime in Kigali.

Fearing an extension of US influence, Mitterrand insisted on supporting the Hutu government, despite evidence that genocide was planned and even after the massacres began. Le Figaro quotes him as telling advisers: "In countries like that genocide is not so important."

In May 1994, two months after the start of massacres which killed 850,000, Figaro reports, arms were being delivered from France to Rwanda. The Foreign Ministry denied it yesterday, saying Paris halted all arms exports in 1993. Le Figaro reported, however, that it was told by a senior officer that shipments continued until a month before France's "humanitarian" intervention in the conflict on 23 June, 1994. The paper also said arms for the Rwandan government continued to arrive at the airport in Goma in Zaire in July of that year, when it was controlled by French troops.

Figaro also says two Rwandan officials, including one now under arrest on suspicion of inciting genocide, visited the Elysee Palace, home of the President, and Matignon Palace, home of the Prime Minister, in April 1994, three weeks after massacres of civilians began. At the Elysee they saw Bruno Delaye, then head of the African advisory "cell". He told Mr de Saint-Exupery: "(At the Elysee) I must have seen 400 murderers and 2,000 drugs-traffickers. When it comes to Africa, you can't help getting your hands dirty."

Defeat of the genocidal Hutu government in the war with Tutsi forces, invading from Uganda, damaged French influence in the region, and Africa as a whole. The new Rwandan government went on to support Laurent Kabila's rebels in their push against President Mobutu in Zaire (also supported by France almost to the last). The episodes, and budgetary restraints, forced a re-examination of France's African policy. The present prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and his predecessor, Alain Juppe, favoured lower- level military engagement and less unquestioning support of authoritarian regimes.

Kigali: Hutu rebels killed nine Catholic nuns at a convent in Rwanda's north-western province, Reuters reports.