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Originally published Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 3:51 AM

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Rwandan panel says army shot down president's jet

Rwandan Hutu soldiers shot down the Hutu president's plane on the eve of the 1994 genocide, according to a government-commissioned inquiry that formally assigned blame for the crash that sparked the slaughter of more than 500,000 people.

Associated Press Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya —

Rwandan Hutu soldiers shot down the Hutu president's plane on the eve of the 1994 genocide, according to a government-commissioned inquiry that formally assigned blame for the crash that sparked the slaughter of more than 500,000 people.

The Rwandan panel also concluded that the Tutsi rebels fighting the president at the time could not have shot down his plane, citing witnesses who described what appeared to be missiles fired from inside or near a military barracks. Those rebels were led by the man who is now Rwanda's current president.

President Juvenal Habyarimana had been returning to Rwanda after talks with the Tutsi rebels. Extremist Hutu politicians and military officers were opposed to a power-sharing deal, the panel said in its report made public late Monday.

"Through repeated and unequivocal warnings, they indicated to him that his acceptance to implement the agreement would be signing for his own death and this is exactly what happened," the report said.

After the April 6, 1994 crash, militants from the Hutu ethnic majority quickly set up roadblocks across the capital, Kigali, and began killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus the following day. More than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in 100 days of frenzied killing.

The slaughter stopped when Paul Kagame's Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, toppled the Hutu extremists. He is now the country's president.

The Rwandan panel reached its conclusion after interviewing more than 500 people, including Rwandan and foreign military officers who were on duty when Habyarimana's plane was shot down.

Jennifer Cooke director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the report is important for the government because there has been speculation about what role the then-rebels played in the crash.

"For the Rwandan government, this puts to bed any speculation that the (Rwandan Patriotic Front) may have been implicated in the shooting down of Habyarimana's plane," Cooke said.

But she added that critics of the current government will question the report because the panel was appointed by the government.

"I don't think it (the report) will convince many of Kagame's skeptics or most of his critics," Cooke said. "Perception is also as important as fact in this kind of case."

Rwanda formed the panel in October 2007, almost a year after a French judicial investigation accused Kagame of ordering Habyarimana's assassination. The Rwandan panel was led by Jean Mutsinzi, a judge of Rwanda's Supreme Court. Other panel members include Rwandan legal experts and former government officials.

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The French judiciary is looking into the downing of Habyarimana's plane because the crew was French.

Prominent former French investigating judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who began the probe, also accused nine other ranking Rwandans of plotting the attack. He issued arrest warrants for the nine but not Kagame because France grants immunity to heads of state.

That decision led to the deterioration of already tense relations between France and Rwanda over the European nation's role in the 1994 genocide. Rwanda cut off diplomatic relations with France in 2006 over the French investigation. Diplomatic ties were restored three years later, in November.

The report also said that as part of the peace process a group of rebels were in the capital but under the guard of a U.N. peacekeeping mission and their movements were closely monitored.

---

On the Net:

Independent Committee of Experts Report: http://www.mutsinzireport.com

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