About 2,000 militiamen stormed Kivumu prison, in the western region of Kibuye, in a pre-dawn attack on Friday and released prisoners who could now join the rebels campaign against the government. Rwanda's army said it was working to recapture the convicts, in the dense Mukala forest. One witness reported seeing about 20 bodies after the attack.
The daring raid came as the former prime minister, Jean Kambanda, 42, was sentenced by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda after being found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Speaking about his crimes, Chief Judge Laity Kama, at the tribunal in Arusha, northern Tanzania, said "their widespread, atrocious and systematic character is particularly shocking to the human conscience".
More than 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, were killed in the orchestrated genocide that began in April 1994. The prosecution said Kambanda had ordered roadblocks to round up Tutsis, and presided over meetings of his hard-line Hutu government as it planned and tallied the massacres.
Kambanda is the first person ever to receive a genocide sentence from an international court. The former prefect of Kibuye, the scene of Friday's mass jailbreak, is among more than 30 others being held in Arusha on trial for genocide.
Rwandans have waited long for the tribunal, beset by mismanagement and corruption, to sentence the first convict. Separately, Rwanda has carried out its own prosecutions: in April firing squads executed 22 people convicted of genocide.
Many who recalled Kambanda's incitements to kill "Tutsi cockroaches", felt he too should have been executed. He had sought a maximum of two years in jail in exchange for pleading guilty and recording 90 hours of incriminating evidence against alleged leaders of the massacre. The three-judge panel rejected his leniency pleas, noting that he showed no regret.
t Michael Ignatieff writes on genocide in the Culture section. His article went to press before the UN tribunal's first conviction.Reuse content