Despite Sarkozy’s visit, diplomatic pitfalls remain in French-Rwandan relations

By Angela Doland, AP
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Diplomatic pitfalls in Sarkozy’s trip to Rwanda

PARIS — A photo op this week will illustrate a story of reconciliation: the presidents of France and Rwanda, standing side-by-side on an airport tarmac and solemnly listening to each other’s national anthems.

Yet amid the ceremony of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Kigali on Thursday, Paris has international arrest warrants out for eight people close to Rwandan leader Paul Kagame — a touchy diplomatic situation, and a reminder of how difficult it is to move on from years of mutual mistrust.

The trip is the first to Rwanda by a French leader in 25 years and the first since the 1994 genocide. It aims to cement diplomatic ties that were restored in November, three years after they broke down because of the arrest warrants accusing those close to Kagame of a role in the mysterious assassination of their country’s president at the time in an attack on his plane — the event that sparked the genocide.

The warrants are still alive, but Rwanda has apparently accepted France’s insistence that they were ordered not by the French government but by an independent judge.

The visit’s goal is to “define the contours of new relations,” the French president’s office said, adding that Sarkozy is also to propose the formation of a committee of historians to probe what happened during the genocide’s 100 days of killing.

France and Rwanda have sparred for years over an alleged French role in the genocide — the killing of 500,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, massacred in frenzied killing led by radical Hutus.

Rwanda’s government and genocide survivor organizations have often accused France of training and arming the militias and former government troops who led the genocide. In 1998, a French parliamentary panel absolved France of responsibility in the slaughter.

Sarkozy and Kagame are expected to visit a memorial for genocide victims during the hours-long visit, which comes after a stop Wednesday in Gabon that is expected to focus on a defense accord.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner says he does not expect Kagame to ask for French apologies, as he has in the past. But Sarkozy “is not opposed to having France look at its history,” Kouchner told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

Alain Gauthier, who heads an advocacy group for Rwandan genocide survivors, said he hopes Sarkozy will raise the sensitive subject of genocide suspects who have taken up exile in France.

“For 15 years, France has been a haven for accused genocidaires,” said Gauthier, whose group has filed 16 complaints against people living in France whom it accuses of a role in the killings. “I hope he will have the courage to say something important.”

While French-Rwandan relations were strained for years over allegations of France’s Hutu sympathies, they broke down entirely in 2006 over a dispute about the assassination that spurred the genocide.

Kagame, a Tutsi, was furious about a French judicial probe into the plane crash that killed Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Prominent former investigating Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere — renowned for tracking down convicted terrorist Carlos the Jackal — accused Kagame of ordering the assassination.

Bruguiere also accused nine other ranking Rwandans of plotting the attack, which he probed because the plane’s crew was French. The judge did not issue an arrest warrant for Kagame because France grants immunity to heads of state.

Bruguiere has now retired and another judge, Marc Trevidic, has taken on the investigation.

Leon Lef Forster, a lawyer for Kagame’s protocol chief Rose Kabuye — who was apprehended in Germany and placed under preliminary investigation in France before being released — praised Trevidic’s objectivity and seriousness.

The new judge is taking into account elements suggesting the nine’s innocence, including a Rwandan government-commissioned inquiry that concluded Hutu soldiers shot down the Hutu president’s plane because they were opposed to a power-sharing deal he backed, said Forster, who has access to files in the case.

Forster, whose client was the only one of the nine to be apprehended, said he held out hope “the judge could move to withdraw the arrest warrants.” The judge could not be reached for comment, and a fellow magistrate working with him declined to speak about the case.

Rwanda’s genocide began hours after the plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down as it approached the capital, Kigali, on April 6, 1994. The slaughter stopped when Kagame’s Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, toppled the Hutu extremists.

Associated Press Writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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