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Rwanda denies trying to kill exiled general as six are held in South Africa

South African police were investigating a possible conspiracy yesterday after making six arrests in connection with the attempted assassination of an exiled former Rwandan army chief of staff.

Lt-General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a dissident Rwandan military commander who fled the country earlier this year, is recovering in a Johannesburg hospital after an attempt on his life on Saturday that his wife has blamed on the president of Rwanda. The authorities in Kigali have denied any knowledge of a plot to kill General Nyamwasa.

"The Government of Rwanda does not condone violence, and we wish the family strength and serenity," said government spokeswoman Louise Mushikiwabo. "We trust in the ability of South African authorities to investigate the incident thoroughly."

Police have refused to confirm the nationalities of any of the six people arrested but sources close to the investigation said one of the men was a Rwandan with a military background known to the general.

The shooting, which took place at lunchtime on Saturday as the former army chief of staff and his wife returned from a shopping trip, has refocused attention on the leadership of President Paul Kagame, who is facing mounting criticism for his authoritarian rule ahead of August elections.

Mr Kagame, who took over the central African state after his rebel army swept into Rwanda to end the 1994 genocide, is himself a military man turned politician. Although he has steered the mountainous country towards stability and economic growth his democratic credentials are suspect.

The government is completely dominated by members of the Tutsi-led RPF rebel army and a report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission last year described Rwanda as "an army with a state".

Analysts said that political tensions within the military were equivalent to a power struggle within the ruling party and since General Nyamwasa fell out with President Kagame he has been loudly denounced as a terrorist and blamed for a spate of grenade attacks.

Since the dissident general's departure there has been a major reshuffle in the Rwandan military, which is seen as the likeliest source of a serious political challenger to the man who has ruled the country for the last 16 years.

In a recent interview with The Independent, Mr Kagame said Rwanda wasn't ready for "democratic niceities" and he has moved strongly against potential political opponents, using the genocide laws to block a presidential opponent and denying other parties the right to register for the August poll.

Rwandan police recently arrested a US lawyer who travelled to Kigali to defend opposition leader Victoire Ingabire from genocide denial charges. Paul Erlinder spent over a fortnight in prison and was said to have "attempted suicide" while in custody. He was released over the weekend following angry protests from Washington, normally a staunch ally.

South African police have officially refused to divulge any details about those arrested or what charges they face. But the fact that General Nyamwasa's wife clearly identified a lone shooter means that authorities believe there was a conspiracy if they have made six arrests. The suspects face attempted murder charges.

The general, who came to South Africa earlier this year, was shot in the stomach while driving to his home in northern Johannesburg. A former confidant of the Rwandan president, the army man has been a powerful critic of Mr Kagame since moving into exile in February, accusing him of corruption and running a dictatorship.

Rwandan rivals

General Nyamwasa

When the RPF forces swept into Rwanda in 1994 to end the 100 days of killing that claimed 800,000 lives, they did so under the command of Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa. As part of the clique of senior military commanders close to Paul Kagame he went on to become army chief of staff in 1998. He was named by France as one of the culprits in the shooting down of President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane, the event that triggered the genocide. The Rwandan government angrily rejected the charge and blamed the incident on a Hutu clique. Lt Gen. Nyamwasa served as ambassador to India until February when he abruptly went into exile in South Africa.

Paul Kagame

Rwanda's President has come to be seen as a competent and effective leader since taking charge in the wake of the 1994 genocide. Under his leadership the country has stifled all debate over what happened 16 years ago with the official line that Mr Kagame's RPF forces halted a Hutu-led genocide of Tutsis being the only acceptable account. Rwanda has been successful in attracting foreign aid and investment and is keen to burnish its image as an emerging high-tech hub. UN experts have pointed to the leadership's role in destabilising neighbouring DR Congo, which Rwandan forces have repeatedly invaded since 1994.