French Inquiry Clears Rwanda’s Kagame Of the Attack That Sparked a Genocide

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Corinne Dufka / Reuters

Rwanda Patriotic Front (R.P.F.) rebels inspect the wreckage of the plane in which Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed, May 26, 1994. The plane crashed April 6, 1994.

Findings revealed on Tuesday from a new French inquiry into events that preceded the 1994 Rwandan genocide reverse the conclusions of a previous investigation that held Tutsi forces and individuals now part of Rwanda’s government responsible for the air strike that came ahead of the massacre of nearly 800,000 people. This latest, more thorough examination of details in the ground-to-air rocket attack on the jet of Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana establishes that the missile was fired from a military camp run by troops of Habyarimana’s fellow Hutus. Though the expert analysis does not identify who organized and carried out the missile strike on Habyarimana, its localization of the firing in a base controlled by Hutu forces removes the earlier accusation of guilt that had been leveled at Tutsi rebels—including six of its leaders who now sit in President Paul Kagame’s government. It’s hoped this official French ruling may now pave way for a normalization in what have been seriously damaged Franco-Rwandan ties—an enduring spat that has had negative consequences for the entire Great Lakes region of central-eastern Africa.

The new expert analysis was lead by France’s top counter-terror investigating magistrate, Marc Trévidic, who along with a team of experts dug into details behind the April 6, 1994 rocket attack and crash of Habyarimana’s plane. That effort took a much deeper look into the evidence and findings of a 2006 report by legendary French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière—an examination that involved trips to Rwanda, scientific study of the on-site clues surrounding the crash, and face-to-face interviews with key individuals that the initial inquiry lacked (nominally due to the soured diplomatic relations and bitter accusations between Paris and Kigali). That more thorough digging allowed the Trévidic panel to minimize or dismiss the most damning evidence that had led Bruguière to conclude that Kagame’s rebel Tutsi forces had shot the rocket from a position near the Kigali airport. Instead, data compiled from the area—aided by sound recordings of the rocket fire and impact—allowed the experts to conclude the launch had to come from a spot within the Hutu-operated Kanombe Military Barracks.

“The investigation explains why evidence and testimony essential to the initial findings had to be discounted or simply thrown out as inaccurate,” says a French official who closely followed the case. “The findings don’t establish exactly who staged the attack, but it does have the merit of clarifying things with reliable new testimony and evidence, and removing misleading elements and conclusions from the early inquiry. If it doesn’t say just who is guilty, it does indicate who almost certainly isn’t.”

Kagame’s government applauded the conclusions, saying they “slammed shut the door on the 17-year campaign to deny the genocide or blame its victims”.

“[The] findings constitute vindication for Rwanda’s long-held position on the circumstances surrounding events of April 1994”, Rwandan Foreign Minister and government spokesperson Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement. “It is now clear to all that the downing of the plane was a coup d’état carried out by extremist Hutu elements and their advisors who controlled Kanombe Barracks.”

The French report doesn’t go anywhere near as far in assigning explicit guilt for the strike–a point that lawyers for officials in the former Hutu regime stress even as they accept the findings of the inquiry. However, the new conclusions do contradict the accusation of the 2006 report implicating Kagame and his fellow former Tutsi rebel forces, and shift suspicion towards what were troops of Rwanda’s then Hutu-controlled government. As such, it marks a dramatic reversal indeed.

Bruguière’s 2006 inquiry largely jibbed with long-echoing allegations in France that Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by a unit from Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in an effort to overthrow the ruling Hutu regime—claims that, once official under Bruguière’s ruling, led to six current Rwandan government officials being effectively indicted and sought by France for trial. Darker, more conspiratorial French minds have gone so far as to contend the downing of the Habyarimana’s jet by the RPF was designed to provoke the Hutu massacre of Tutsis that followed, and thereby legitimize Kagame’s offense to take control of the country. History shows, however, that the genocide following Habyarimana’s death ended after a notoriously belated, French-led international intervention, and with Kagame and the RPF assuming power in Rwanda after helping halt the Hutu killing spree.

In the face of such accusations from France, the Kagame government held a counter-inquiry that determined radical Hutus who viewed Habyarimana as too moderate shot his plane down. Killing their own president, the inquiry reasoned, was meant to justify the ensuing Hutu campaign of slaughter against Tutsis that had purportedly been planned for months. Moreover, current Rwandan leaders maintain that France abetted the Hutu massacre campaign under the guise of French peacekeeping intervention. In 2008, Rwanda published its own inquiry charging several leading French military and government officials of the era of complicity in the genocide actions of their Hutu allies.

Far more than just a political or legal blame game of who was responsible for shooting Habyarimana’s jet down, the real stakes in the dueling Franco-Rwandan accusations were over which group in Rwanda (and their foreign allies) would be held accountable for igniting what became a nightmarish genocide.

And that’s exactly why officials in Kigali reacted so furiously to Bruguière’s 2006 findings, severing Rwanda’s relations with France. Efforts to normalize the bilateral relationship resumed with the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy as French president. They gained a further boost in 2010—the same year diplomatic relations where restored—when Sarkozy visited Rwanda and acknowledged France had erred in not recognizing the extent of the massacre, nor responding to it fast enough. With the new inquiry almost certainly clearing Rwanda’s Tutsi leaders of any hand in attacking Habyarimana’s jet, it’s now hoped the return of calm and diplomacy will allow bilateral ties to strengthen, and nurture increased stability in the entire Great Lakes area. The region remains riven with ethnic, tribal, and national divisions that periodically break out in brutality, violence, and even warfare—notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern border with Rwanda.