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French court lifts arrest warrants over Habyarimana plane crash

By the independent team & agencies

Former judge Bruguire admits he conferred with French government over decision

A French judge placed Rwanda’s defence minister and five other aides of President Paul Kagame under investigation in a probe into an attack seen as sparking the African country’s 1994 genocide, legal sources said on Dec. 16.

The six, who include a general and a lieutenant-colonel, were informed of the indictments against them while in Burundi earlier this month and have been allowed to remain at liberty, the source said.

Placing the men under investigation means that international arrest warrants issued for them — which led to Rwanda cutting off diplomatic relations with France in 2006 — can be dropped.

The judge can now decide whether to pursue the investigation and eventually send the suspects for trial, or drop the case.

The men’s lawyers welcomed the lifting of the arrest warrants, saying in a statement that it was “a very significant step in the procedure and a very important moment for relations between France and Rwanda.”

Rwandan Justice Minister, Tharcisse Karugarama, described the development as a “first step” towards the revelation of the real truth behind the assassination of former President, Juvenal Habyarimana, and that it marks an end to the rulings of former French judge, Jean Louis Bruguiere’s “baseless” arrest warrants.

“The Rwandan Government has welcomed this development and hopes that this is the first step towards the comprehensive conclusion of this unfortunate case based on political manipulations by people interested in destabilising Rwanda,” said Minister Karugarama.

“Government believes that now the investigations have been officially opened, the truth will come out for the whole world to know that the officers in question are not responsible at all for shooting down the plane on April 6, 1994.”

It has since been discovered through confidential diplomatic cables leaked by whistle-blowing website, Wikileaks that Bruguiere,  had confirmed that he had “conferred” with the Government of France, including President Chirac, on the timing and fallout of his issuance of arrest warrants against top RPF officials.

“He said he presented his decision to French officials, including President Chirac, to consult with them because he was convinced of the need to coordinate timing with the government,” a section of the leaked documents reads.

The French anti-terror judge Marc Trevidic is now probing the 1994 downing of a plane carrying Rwanda’s then president Juvenal Habyarimana because the crew of the aircraft were French nationals.

The killing of Habyarimana, who was travelling with his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira, is believed to have triggered the 1994 genocide which claimed the lives of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

French experts probing the downing of the plane wound up their task of hearing witness testimonies and visiting key Kigali sites in September this year.

The five-member team including two anti-terrorism judges — Trevidic and Nathalie Poux — surveyors, ballistics, explosives and fire experts sought to determine the origin of missiles that downed the plane.

Pre-genocide Hutu extremists and Tutsi rebels are both suspected of being behind the April 6, 1994 shooting of the Falcon 50 craft.

The French team suspect a commando unit of Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels of infiltrating the Rwandan Hutu army and firing two missiles from a hill east of the runway where the plane was coming in to land.

But the RPF government now in power in Kigali blames the attack on Hutu extremists within the FAR national army seeking to eliminate Habyarimana in order to launch a coup.

The two presidents were returning from a summit in neighbouring Tanzania to revamp a 1993 peace deal aimed at setting up a transitional government and integrate the RPF rebels.

Kigali broke off relations with France in late 2006 after a French anti-terror judge implicated Kagame’s entourage in Habyarimana’s assassination.

Rwanda responded by releasing a report accusing around 30 senior French political and military figures of complicity in the genocide.

Diplomatic relations were restored a year ago and in February this year President Nicolas Sarkozy made the first visit to Rwanda by a French president since the 1994 massacres.

Sarkozy acknowledged that France made mistakes during the genocide, paid homage to the victims but stopped short of apologising.

“What happened here is unacceptable, but what happened here compels the international community, including France, to reflect on the mistakes that stopped it from preventing and halting this abominable crime,” he said

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