Government cracks down on opposition groups in build-up to August election

Rwanda appears set for a rerun of its deeply undemocratic vote in 2003.

That election was widely denounced after the former rebel army leader Paul Kagame took 95 per cent of the vote and all effective opposition was quashed. Now, as then, opposition leaders are being arrested or intimidated, rival parties are being refused the right to register and critical newspapers are being closed down. Adding to the tension is a series of deadly grenade attacks that have shattered the peace in the capital, Kigali. They have been followed by the sudden sacking of senior army officials.

The main opposition leader, Victoire Ingabire, faces trial charged with genocide denial. After securing the temporary release of Mrs Ingabire on Thursday, her US lawyer, Peter Erlinder, was himself taken into custody.

The opposition crackdown has prompted the US government, normally a staunch ally of President Kagame, to voice its concern in unusually strong terms. The US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, said: "The political environment ahead of the election has been riddled by a series of worrying actions taken by the government of Rwanda, which appear to be attempts to restrict the freedom of expression."

In addition to the arrest of Mrs Ingabire, Mr Carson pointed to the suspension of two newspapers and the denial of a visa to a researcher from the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which has repeatedly criticised government oppression.

The build-up to the August poll has exposed the fraught nature of the discussion over the events in 1994 that left 800,000 people dead and millions displaced. The current government insists that the killings were part of a premeditated Hutu campaign to wipe out ethnic Tutsis and have criminalised any dissenting views. Mrs Ingabire, a Hutu, who returned to Rwanda after 16 years in exile, has since been accused of inciting racial hatred. She has had her efforts to register her United Democratic Forces party blocked, her computer seized and her passport confiscated.

A coalition of opposition groups last week appealed to the President to stop what they described as a series of "near war" speeches from poisoning the election. "Politically there's no space for the opposition or any other view than that of the government," said Daniela Kroslak, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya.