French judges probe killing of Rwandan ex-president

13th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

French judges probing the 1994 shooting down of a plane carrying Rwanda's former president Juvenal Habyarimana questioned witnesses and visited various sites in Kigali, a lawyer told AFP Monday.

The two anti-terrorism judges, Marc Trevidic and Nathalie Poux, and a five-member team of surveyors, ballistics, explosives and fire experts were working to determine where the missiles that downed the plane were fired from.

Two differing accounts have been used to explain the origin of the salvos.

The French team -- probing the case because French pilots were killed in the April 6, 1994 downing of the Falcon 50 craft -- suspect a commando unit of then Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels of infiltrating the Rwandan Hutu armed forces (FAR).

The infiltrators are suspected of firing two SAM-16 missiles from the Massaka hill overlooking the airport to the east of the runway where the plane was coming in to land at Kigali airport.

But Rwanda has made a different case, laying responsibility for the attack on "Hutu Power" extremists within the FAR who wanted to eliminate their fellow Hutu president in order to prepare a coup d'etat.

According to a Rwandan report, backed up by a ballistic survey conducted by British experts, the missiles were fired from the Kanombe military camp, a big army base adjoining the airport and the presidential residence.

"They are verifying the credibility ... of some witness accounts," said Leon-Lef Forster, a lawyer of three Rwandan officials targeted in the probe.

The French team visited the president's residence Monday and were to visit the crash site later in the day. Forster told AFP the team will then model a computer simulation of the two scenarios.

"I do not know what the findings will be, but we can only be happy about this critical stage of the investigations for an objective search for the truth and regretting that this work was not undertaken earlier," Forster said.

The French embassy in Kigali said the outcome will be known only after "several weeks of study in France."

The French judges are also studying statements by 20 key witnesses in Kigali and toured Kigali airport's control tower.

Habyarimana was travelling with his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira when the plane was shot down and both men were killed.

That incident is believed to have triggered the 1994 Rwandan genocide which claimed the lives of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a space of 100 days.

Habyarimana and Ntaryamira 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.

The accord inked in Arusha was to end fighting between the RPF rebels of Paul Kagame -- Rwanda's current president -- and then Rwandan armed forces FAR.

© 2010 AFP

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