French soldiers stationed in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994 have been accused of "widespread rape" by a Rwandan commission investigating France's role during the conflict.
The commission, which is due to publish its final report in October, will also provide fresh evidence that French soldiers trained the Interahamwe, the extremist Hutu militia responsible for most of the killing, and even provided them with weapons.
The allegations threaten to plunge relations between Rwanda and its former colonial master to a new low. It could also lead to Rwanda seeking reparations from France at the International Court of Justice. "That is something we are considering," said one government official.
France's support for the genocidal Rwandan regime – both before and during the slaughter – has been well documented, but the new report sheds some light on the extent of that backing.
In particular, it provides the first evidence that French soldiers sent to Rwanda during the genocide as part of a UN-mandated force to protect civilians carried out "widespread rape" of genocide survivors. Jean Paul Kimonyo, one of the commissioners, said: "They were asking for Tutsis – not women – Tutsis."
The commission was established by the Rwandan president Paul Kagame in April last year and is headed by a former minister of justice. France has accused the commission of being little more than a kangaroo court and when the seven commissioners visited France earlier this year, French authorities made it clear that they were not welcome.
Dr Kimonyo, himself a former press aide to Mr Kagame, said he initially shared some of those fears.
"The law which established the commission said France was guilty already. We were very uneasy about it. But the evidence is overwhelming."
Based on testimony given at public hearings by genocide survivors and former soldiers trained by French forces, plus evidence from piles of official paperwork left by the fleeing Hutu regime, the commission believes it has enough proof to convince the international community.
Dr Kimonyo said: "France was directly involved in the preparation of the genocide. They were training the Interahamwe in a systematic manner. They were training them to kill, to kill as fast as possible as one witness said, using knives and machetes. What were they training them for? It is very disturbing."
France has so far refused to acknowledge any role it played during the genocide. Instead, last year a French anti-terrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, claimed Mr Kagame was responsible for the act which started it, accusing the-then head of the RPF of shooting down the plane carrying then president Jubenal Habyarimana. Most experts believe the plane was shot down by the same Hutu extremists who had been planning the genocide.
Mr Habyarimana's death prompted a wave of killing by Hutu extremists, that resulted in 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus slaughtered in just three months. In response, Mr Kagame threw the French ambassador out of Kigali, ordered the closure of the French cultural centre and removed Radio France International from the airwaves.
As relations with France have progressively soured, those with Britain have improved dramatically. English has become one of three official languages, Rwanda has applied to join the Commonwealth, and last year they established a national cricket board.
More importantly in Rwandan eyes, the UK has become the largest donor, spending £46m last year. France has gone from being the largest international donor before the genocide to the smallest now.
There are small signs that France's attitude towards Rwanda may be shifting slightly. The last ambassador had been attempting to build bridges and was widely liked by Rwandan government officials.
The role of France's new Foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, will be crucial. M Kouchner, who has signalled his intention to visit Rwanda before the end of the year, was there during the genocide, as the head of a French humanitarian organisation. Although he was seen as being close to the French president, François Mitterrand, M. Kouchner later publicly admonished his government's lack of support for Mr Kagame after the Rwandan genocide ended.
How France intervened
Tutsi-led rebel forces, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invade the north of the country. President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu backed by the French, calls in support. Three hundred French paratroopers secure Rwanda's International Airport and fight off the invading forces. In a few days 600 more French troops are sent in to "protect and evacuate French citizens".
France continues to send military advisors and arms. The army grows from 5,000 to 28,000.
Lieutenant Colonel Chollet, the commander of French forces in Rwanda, becomes army chief of staff and advisor to the Rwandan presidency.
3 February 1993
The RPF launches a major attack, capturing the town of Ruhengeri and moving towards the capital. Hundreds of French troops are sent to Rwanda along with huge quantities of ammunition to back up the government forces.
20 February 1993
Threatened by the rapid French deployment, the RPF forces call a unilateral ceasefire and withdraws.
6 April 1994
President Habyarimana's plane is shot down, triggering the genocide of almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
French troops launch "Operation Turquoise", aiming to establish a "safe zone" in the south-west of the country. Although some killings continue in the zone, President François Mitterrand later claims it has saved "tens of thousands".Reuse content