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Genocide findings cause an uproar

Times Staff Writer

More than a decade after the genocide, a mystery still lies at the heart of Rwanda’s darkness.

But France’s most celebrated anti-terrorism magistrate believes he knows who assassinated two African presidents on April 6, 1994. The shooting down of the Rwandan presidential jet that night was followed by the killings of an estimated 800,000 people, most of them members of the Tutsi minority.

In a report to French prosecutors late last year, Magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere accused the Tutsi leader who is now president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, of ordering the assassination.

The investigation includes allegations that U.S. and U.N. officials helped quash earlier inquiries to protect Kagame, an ally of the United States.

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The French judge’s report, which was obtained by The Times, has caused an uproar in Africa and Europe, and led Kagame’s government to break off relations with France.

A United Nations tribunal is judging perpetrators of the genocide, but the ghosts of Rwanda still haunt a world community that failed to intervene. French investigators do not claim that the assassination was the sole cause of the genocide. Tensions already were growing between Tutsis and Rwanda’s majority Hutus. But Bruguiere alleges that Kagame sacrificed fellow Tutsis in a brutal “political calculation” aimed at toppling the Hutu-dominated government.

“Kagame deliberately chose a modus operandi that, in the particularly tense environment ... between the Hutu and Tutsi communities, could only cause bloody retaliation against the Tutsi community,” says the judge’s report, which recommends that prosecutors file formal charges.

Former U.N. investigators who initially looked into the assassination told Bruguiere that their bosses had blocked efforts to pursue leads implicating Kagame. The 67-page French report presents testimony from exiled Kagame bodyguards, spies and commanders. They identified a commando team that allegedly shot down the plane, killing President Juvenal Habyarimana and the president of neighboring Burundi, as well as their aides and the French crew.

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In November, Bruguiere issued warrants for nine high-ranking Rwandan officials in the investigation, which he opened in response to a complaint from the widow of one of the French pilots. The judge also urged a U.N. war crimes tribunal on Rwanda to investigate Kagame, who as a head of state is immune from prosecution.

The warrants put Rwandan suspects in danger of arrest if they travel, and Kagame also could be in jeopardy once he leaves office. But a trial in France seems remote for now.

In response to the warrants, Kagame accused the French of trying to conceal their ties to former Hutu leaders and said the prosecution amounted to blaming the victims.

“Mr. Bruguiere is an impostor, a politician,” Kagame said. “If he were a judge, he would raise the question of the implication of France in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.”

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Magistrate ruffles feathers

Bruguiere’s eight-year investigation led French detectives through a diaspora of Rwandan exiles in Africa, Europe and North America. It also revealed intrigue sometimes pitting France and its African allies against forces supported by the United States and Britain.

Bruguiere, 63, has ruffled diplomatic feathers before. He charged six Libyan intelligence officials, including the brother-in-law of the nation’s leader, Moammar Kadafi, in the bombing of a flight from Zaire -- now known as Congo -- to Paris in 1989 that killed 170 people. The charges irritated French diplomats who had been trying to improve relations with Kadafi, but a French court eventually convicted the Libyans in absentia.

The high-profile Rwanda prosecution could culminate the career of the swashbuckling French magistrate. Facing mandatory retirement in two years, Bruguiere is likely to run for the legislature this spring and could also aspire to a Cabinet post.

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Critics accuse Bruguiere of grandstanding and sloppiness. His report contains “disconcerting errors” such as misspelled names, Le Monde newspaper said. One of the witnesses, a former Kagame soldier living in Europe, has reversed his testimony and denied that he participated in shooting down the plane.

But a former chief U.N. investigator applauded Bruguiere for taking a new look at the case. The version of events advanced by the Rwandan government is that extremist Hutus killed the president as a pretext for launching the genocide, but Rwandan authorities have never charged anyone in the assassination.

“People feel very comfortable because there’s a version of history out there, they’ve published books, made films, and they feel comfortable leaving it alone,” said Michael Hourigan, an Australian who says he quit in disgust when ordered to stop investigating Kagame. “Someone needs to explain why there’s been no investigation.”

Among the dozen Tutsi dissidents who testified in the French inquiry was Aloys Ruyenzi, a former Kagame bodyguard with the wary, melancholy manner of a man accustomed to looking over his shoulder.

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Ruyenzi, 35, says he fled to Europe because Rwandan operatives tried to kill him when he turned against the government. During an interview, he confirmed the testimony he gave to Bruguiere.

“It was my wish to testify,” he said. “Nobody forced me to do it.”

Ruyenzi is one of many English-speaking Tutsis who grew up in Rwanda’s neighbor, Uganda. He received military training in Uganda and became an intelligence sergeant in a Rwandan exile force led by Kagame. He recalls with pride that he was chosen in 1992 to become one of Kagame’s bodyguards.

Kagame led an incursion from Uganda, a U.S. ally, into Rwanda, where Hutu governments had for years repressed the Tutsis, often brutally. His crack 600-man guerrilla army forced a truce with Habyarimana, a Hutu who had staunch French backing.

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Ruyenzi said he stood guard on March 31, 1994, as Kagame and five top aides discussed shooting down Habyarimana’s plane. Col. Theoneste Lizinde, a military advisor, was a key plotter, Ruyenzi said.

“Lizinde was from Rwanda, not an exile, so he knew the territory more than the others,” Ruyenzi said. “Lizinde gave the report on where the plane should be shot. The place was near the airport. My testimony was not hearsay. I was an eyewitness. I heard what Kagame said. I was in the room. His quote was: ‘If the president does not die, we could not win the war.’ ”

Ruyenzi and other witnesses testified that shoulder-borne Soviet-made SAM-16 missiles were smuggled to the area in a load of firewood. On April 6, a missile team infiltrated a Hutu-controlled semirural area near the airport in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, the report says.

Habyarimana and President Cyprien Ntayamira of Burundi returned together that evening from peace talks in nearby Tanzania. Their Falcon 50 jet descended into the sights of the commando unit about 8:25 p.m., according to the report. It names Sub-Lt. Franck Nziza as the fighter whose missile blew up the plane and sent flames and wreckage raining onto the presidential estate next to the airport.

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“They came back ... and said what they did,” Ruyenzi said. “They were promoted.”

Hours later, Hutu soldiers intercepted two radio communications, one in the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping officer, in which Kagame’s troops alluded to their success, investigators say.

French investigators later traced the missiles to a stock sold by Russia to Uganda, which provided them to Kagame’s troops, the report said.

Investigators say that rising hostility between Hutus and Tutsis before the assassination, as well as the downing of the plane, contributed to the genocide that followed. Extremist Hutus had been broadcasting venomous anti-Tutsi propaganda over the radio for weeks. But the investigators accuse Kagame of exposing Rwandan Tutsis to murderous retaliation by Hutus in a ploy to create chaos and seize power.

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The Kagame government adheres to the contrasting theory that extremist Hutus angry about the peace deal with the Tutsis killed Habyarimana.

At first, that scenario shaped the thinking of Hourigan, the Australian former U.N. investigator, and his American deputy, retired FBI supervisor James Lyons, who were sent to the killing fields in 1996 to lead a multinational team.

“All the academic and press comment was that it was Hutus around the president,” Hourigan said. “But we never, ever met anyone who could give us substantive information to back up those leads. They were empty statements, vague and very generalized.”

Leader implicated

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In early 1997, U.N. investigators developed three informants close to Kagame who implicated their leader.

“They had firsthand knowledge, and they said it had been a special unit that did black-bag jobs,” meaning covert killings, Lyons said in an interview. “Two of the informants knew each other, but the third didn’t [know either of them]. That lent credence to what they were saying.”

On March 7 of that year, Hourigan used a secure phone at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali to report to Louise Arbour, a war crimes prosecutor based in The Hague, according to testimony.

Hourigan says the prosecutor encouraged him. But when he visited The Hague days later, he said, she ordered him to drop the investigation of Kagame.

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“She had already made her mind up,” Hourigan said. “It was almost like the end of a marriage. It wasn’t a debate.”

Arbour, now the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has declined to comment.

Hourigan also testified that he thought there was a link between his call on the U.S. Embassy phone and Arbour’s about-face. He said in his testimony that he suspected that U.S. spies learned of the emerging focus on Kagame and that Washington leaned on U.N. brass to protect the Tutsi leader.

U.S. officials who served under President Clinton say it is farfetched to think Washington helped quash the investigation. But Herman Cohen, the assistant secretary of State for Africa under President George H.W. Bush, said the idea was plausible because U.S. officials felt guilty about failing to intervene in the genocide.

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“The Clinton administration really did everything possible to protect Kagame,” Cohen said.

A spokesman for the U.N. genocide tribunal, based in Arusha, Tanzania, declined to comment on that debate. But he said Hourigan’s internal report has remained available to prosecutors.

The tribunal has “enormous interest” in Bruguiere’s report, spokesman Everard O’Donnell said. But it has not officially received the report and will not be pressured by outside forces, he said.

“Nobody tells the prosecutor what to do,” O’Donnell said in a telephone interview.

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He said the trials so far had contradicted the idea that the assassination triggered the genocide.

“The whole point about the genocide is that it was planned, preplanned,” O’Donnell said. “Although the crash, the killing of the presidents, plays a role, it is not the cause of the genocide.”

As for the accusations against Kagame, O’Donnell said the evidence was mixed. “The position is very much today that it’s a whodunit,” he said. “And we don’t know whodunit.”

Potential witnesses killed

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In a chilling footnote, two potential witnesses identified by the U.N. investigative team were killed in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, team officials and French investigators say.

Lizinde, named as a lead plotter, was kidnapped and slain in 1996 as he prepared to write a book about the assassination, the French report says. His family accuses Rwandan agents of the killing, citing documents in which Lizinde said he fled to Zaire and then Kenya after being targeted by Kagame’s forces, the report says.

The other man slain was former Interior Minister Seth Sendashonga. Kenyan police accused a Rwandan diplomat of trying to kill him in 1996 and deported the official; Sendashonga was killed two years later.

A former Rwandan military intelligence agent living in the United States testified that the killing was the work of a covert unit created to silence dissidents. Sendashonga was dangerous because he “knew about the project of the attack on the presidential plane,” the witness, Jean-Pierre Mugabe, told French investigators.

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Ruyenzi, the former bodyguard, worries about meeting the same fate. Having lost loved ones in the horror nearly 13 years ago, he said, justice should disregard politics and ethnicity.

“I’m a Tutsi and I don’t support anybody who is a criminal,” he said. “If he is a Tutsi, let him answer for what he did. If he is a Hutu, let him answer for what he did.”

rotella@latimes.com

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Back story

In 1994, the small Central African country of Rwanda was the scene of a genocide. An estimated 800,000 people died. Most of the victims were Tutsis, the country’s chief minority group, who were killed by members of the Hutu majority.

A small group of international peacekeeping troops was stationed in the country when the killings began in April, but most were pulled out for fear they would be attacked. The killings began about six months after U.S. Marines on a peacekeeping mission had been killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, and U.S. officials opposed sending more troops to Africa.

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The killings began after a missile downed a plane carrying Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntayamira of Burundi. The two had been in Tanzania for talks aimed at ending fighting between their countries.

Source: Times research


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