War of words as Rwanda marks genocide

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The Independent Online

A bitter war of words has erupted between Rwanda and France just weeks before the central African nation marks the 10th anniversary of the genocide of 800,000 people.

Western heads of state are due in the capital, Kigali, next month to commemorate the 100-day slaughter, which was sparked by the assassination of Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, on 6 April 1994. What should be a moment of sombre reflection is, however, being marred by a furious exchange of accusations, centred on a murder mystery that is as central to Rwanda's history as the Kennedy assassination is to that of the United States.

Last week the French newspaper Le Monde reported that the current Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame, was responsible for the shooting down of the presidential jet as it approached Kigali airport in 1994. The allegation, based on an as-yet unpublished judicial investigation, contradicts the widely held belief that Hutu extremists carried out the attack to trigger a pre-meditated elimination plan against the Tutsi minority.

President Kagame launched a counter-attack in which he accused French troops of being "directly" involved in the massacres. "They [the French] knew about it. They supported it. They provided weapons, they gave orders and instructions to those who carried out the genocide," he told Radio France International on Tuesday. "They also took part in the operations directly: at checkpoints on roads to identify people according to their ethnic background, by punishing the Tutsis and showing favouritism to the Hutus."

The intrigue was heightened by the sudden "discovery" of a key piece of evidence in a filing cabinet in New York. After denying for years it had the presidential jet's flight recorder, United Nations officials said last week that they had found it. The fiasco is another embarrassment for the UN, which was accusing of standing by in 1994 as extremists butchered Tutsis and moderate Hutus in their homes.

The Le Monde story was based on a six-year investigation by the judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, which was requested by the families of the French team piloting the Falcon 50 jet. His report, which has not been published, names two dissidents from the now-ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who are living in exile. They reportedly identified the then rebel leader, Mr Kagame, as having ordered the use of surface-to-air missiles against the jet.

Analysts say that the assassin's identity remains a mystery. Gérard Prunier, a French academic who wrote a respected account of the genocide, said he was "unsure" of the Le Monde allegations but that Mr Kagame's allegations against France were "crazy".

"Certainly, France was politically responsible for the genocide, and there are people with an axe to grind in Paris, but these claims are just ridiculous," he said. The current row is a continuation of the debate over responsibility for the genocide, which has drawn historians, politicians and journalists in to an argument in which there is little middle ground.

As UK international development secretary, Clare Short gave millions in aid to Rwanda, and was widely perceived as Mr Kagame's ally. On the other side Alison Des Forges, a renowned human rights researcher, was branded a "genocide apologist" by Kigali last year for her criticism of persecution of the political opposition, particularly during August's heavily tilted presidential elections.

The key question is whether President Kagame's RPF rebels also carried ethnic slaughter of Hutus after the genocide on a scale similar to the pogrom of Tutsis.

Some have already changed their minds. M. Prunier is revising sections of his book that glossed over reports of RPF revenge massacres, something that he now says was "a mistake".

He estimates that the RPF massacred up to 450,000 Hutus - almost two-thirds of the genocide death toll - in Rwanda and Congo in the wake of the 1994 slaughter. He said: "I used to think there were good guys and bad guys in this. Now I am 100 per cent convinced there are only bad guys."