France claims innocence in Rwanda genocide, again
A general grilled over France's contested response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda has fought back claims his unit provided Hutu rebels with arms and knowingly left hundreds of ethnic Tutsis to die.
"No munitions, not even a bullet, was given [to the Hutus ] by Operation Turquoise," General Jean-Claude Lafourcade, who led France's UN-mandated unit in western Rwanda during the height of the 1994 killings, told a French judge during the January 12 and January 14 hearings.
France’s role during the April-July 1994 genocide in Rwanda has for years been the subject of intense scrutiny and much controversy, with both Paris and Kigali trying to pin responsibility on the other for the murder of 800,000 men, women and children – most of whom belonged to the ethnic Tutsi minority.
While Rwanda has repeatedly accused France of backing the Hutu nationalist government, allegedly arming and training the Hutu perpetrators responsible for the slaughter, Paris has denied the accusations of murder, insisting its forces worked to protect the civilians.
Lafourcade was questioned over claims that his unit had left hundreds of Tutsis to be slaughtered by Hutu militiamen in the western Bisesero hills in June 1994. A judicial inquiry was launched in 2005 after survivors filed a complaint against French troops. Investigators are still trying to determine what the officers and the military command knew.
"Where the French soldiers were, there were no massacres nor abuses," Lafourcade was cited by the AFP news agency as saying during the hearings.
"It took some time for the reality of the genocide to sink in, seeing... the presence of mass graves, burned villages," he said.
‘They left us’
While human rights groups have charged that the French unit could have prevented the Bisesero massacre, some genocide survivors claim the French went as far as to give away their location to Hutu extremists.
“They said they would come to protect us and we thought they were going to save us,” local resident Ezequiel Ndayisaba told FRANCE 24 late last year. “We showed them the still warm bodies of people that had just been killed. But they told us to go back to our hiding places and that they’d be back later. We begged them but they left us anyway.”
The French soldiers didn’t return to Bisesero until three days later, when hundreds of Tutsis had already been massacred.
Lafourcade said that there was "a general underestimation - French and international - of the involvement of local and government authorities", and that with just 120-130 soldiers in his unit, he was concerned about "thoughtlessly" launching patrols in the country's interior.
Instead, the priority had been to evacuate nuns from Kibuye, in western Rwanda, he explained.
"I can only regret the death of the Tutsis who died," he said. "We were very much alone."
Lafourcade appeared before the judge as an “assisted witness”, meaning he has not been charged with any crime but can be summoned for questioning at any time.
Frayed diplomatic ties
Diplomatic ties between Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, and France have been deeply strained ever since sitting President Paul Kagame’s rebels overthrew the Hutu government in July 1994, bringing an end to the three-months of bloodshed that wiped out nearly a fifth of the population.
Aside from accusing France of arming and aiding Hutis, Kigali has indicated that some of the worst war criminals were able to escape under the cover of a French military mission.
Between 2006 and 2009 relations were completely broken off after a French judge implicated Kagame in the 1994 downing of late president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane – an event widely seen as sparking the crisis.
Kagame has vehemently denied the charges, saying Hutu rebels orchestrated the incident to use as a pretext to launch the killings.
In 2009, Rwanda became only the second country after Mozambique to join the international Commonwealth union without having historic links to Britain. Although Kigali’s official motive was to strengthen the country’s ties with its east English-speaking neighbours, including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, it was largely viewed as a kick-in-the-teeth to France and Belgium.
Under Kagame’s rule, English has become one of the country’s three official languages along with Kinyarwanda and French.
In 2014, he renewed accusations of France’s “direct role” in the Rwandan genocide, claiming it had participated in the political preparations “and [its] very execution”.
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