France closes probe into 1994 attack on Rwanda president Juvenal Habyarimana

Thursday December 21 2017

Former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. French anti-terror judges have ended an investigation into the missile attack on a plane that killed him sparking Rwanda's 1994 genocide, legal sources said on December 21, 2017. FILE PHOTO | AFP


French anti-terror judges have ended an investigation into the missile attack on a plane that killed former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, sparking Rwanda's 1994 genocide, legal sources said Thursday.

The long-running probe has been a major source of tension between the two countries following accusations that a Tutsi militia headed by current Rwandan President Paul Kagame was responsible for the attack on the plane in April 1994.


The missile strike near Kigali's airport sparked 100 days of slaughter of the Tutsi ethnic minority by members of Habyarimana's Hutu ethnic group, leaving an estimated 800,000 people dead.

Kigali has long accused France of complicity in the genocide by supporting the Hutu regime, training the soldiers and militiamen who carried out the killings.

Ties had been on the mend until 2014 when Kagame repeated accusations that French soldiers had been involved in the bloodbath.


The relationship took an even worse turn when the French judiciary decided in October 2016 to reopen an investigation into the attack on the plane, as the French crew were among the victims.

Surface-to-air missiles

In October, sources close to the probe said that the judges had heard from a new witness who claimed to have seen the surface-to-air missiles used to launch the attack at the headquarters of Kagame's militia.

The testimony corroborates other versions of events that point the finger at Kagame's regime.

French authorities have been investigating the strike as French citizens were among those killed aboard Habyarimana's plane.

A total of seven people have been charged in France over the deaths, including Rwanda's current defence minister, James Kabarebe, and Franck Nziza who allegedly fired the missile.

Having finished their probe, the judges will now await the opinion of the French prosecutor’s office on whether to take the case to trial and will then make a final decision at an unknown future date.

The Rwandan government has consistently blamed Hutu extremists for the assassination of Habyarimana, charging that they wanted to rid themselves of a president they considered too moderate.

Diplomatic ties broke down altogether between France and Rwanda for three years from 2006 when France sought the arrest of nine suspects, including the seven who have since been charged.

Repeated accusations

Relations recovered slowly in the years up to 2014 when French judges declared they had completed their investigation a first time.

But tensions resurfaced the same year when Kagame repeated accusations that French soldiers had been involved in the genocide and the relationship nosedived again in October last year when the investigating judges re-activated their probe.

They said they wanted to question dissident Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who has accused Kagame of being behind the missile attack, but South Africa — where he has refugee status — has refused permission for them to question him via videolink, sources told AFP.

Everyone onboard Habyarimana’s plane was killed in the surface-to-air missile attack, including Burundi’s president Cyprien Ntaryamira, who was on his way back from peace talks in Tanzania.

France at the time of the genocide was a major backer of the Hutus, and a new report commissioned by the Rwandan government this month repeated accusations that Paris wilfully ignored signs of a looming genocide.

Kigali launched an inquiry last year into the role of 20 French officials in the butchery.

Kagame’s government has further accused France for years of dragging its heels on prosecuting genocide suspects who fled there.

A man accused of transporting militiamen to the scene of a massacre in western Kibuye is set to face court in the third such trial in France, though the hearings have been suspended pending an appeal.

Rare talks

Kagame held rare talks in New York in September with France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who has since pledged to turn a page on a history of French meddling in francophone Africa.

In 2015, his predecessor Francois Hollande announced the declassification of French archives for the period covering the genocide, in what was considered a strong gesture on the 21st anniversary of the start of the killing.

But France’s highest court ruled in September that researchers could be barred from accessing the sensitive files because of a law protecting presidential archives for 25 years after the death of the head of state.
The president at the time, Francois Mitterrand, died in 1996, meaning his archives will not be made public until 2021.

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