More than 20 years after Rwandan genocide, killings haunt French military

2 min 22Approximate reading time

New documents have come to light in the long-running controversy over whether French troops based in Rwanda at the time of the 1994 genocide failed to prevent the killings of Tutsis.

The documents relate to one incident in which hundreds of Tutsis were killed in Rwanda's Bisesero hills on June 27 of that year.

It occurred two months after the country's president, Juvenal Habyarima, a Hutu, died when his plane was shot down, an incident that sparked the genocide of mostly ethnic Tutsis which claimed at least 800,000 lives.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has accused Paris of complicity in the genocide because of its support of the Hutu nationalist government that carried out the mass slaughter.

Paris has repeatedly denied the accusations and insists that French forces had worked to protect civilians. Relations between both countries were completely frozen from 2006 to 2009.

Three French human rights organisations -- civil parties in an investigation launched after a case filed in 2005 by survivors -- last week called for two French officers to be indicted over the Bisesero killings: Jacques Rosier, who was the commander of special forces, and Marin Gillier, the head of a squad of marines.

On July 8, Rosier was called to testify as an assisted witness before two judges.

The plaintiffs charge that French soldiers promised the refugees on June 27 that they would rescue them, but failed to do so until three days later.

During those three days hundreds of Tutsis were chased and massacred in the Bisesero hills.

A source close to the case told AFP the judges believe that "the discovery of refugees in Bisesero on June 27," 1994 by French soldiers "was known to the French authorities, and before June 30."

Since June 22 of that year, the French army, deployed under a UN mandate, officially for "humanitarian" purposes, was tasked with ending the massacres.

But in the minds of some officers, used to dealing with the mostly Hutu Rwandan Armed Forces, the situation was ambiguous.

One non-commissioned officer who testified said "our bosses, in particular Rosier, gave us the line that it was the Tutsis who were killing the Hutus," something Rosier firmly denied.

In his evidence, Gillier said he did not know who was killing who "in the middle of the day" on June 27 during "a reconnaissance mission to try and understand what was happening".

He saw "people running in different directions on the hillside" from his position about five kilometres (three miles) away, and began to have "doubts" on June 30 after meeting Tutsi victims.

But this version was contested by Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Remy Duval who had gathered testimony from Tutsi witnesses from June 27, which he had immediately passed on to his superiors by telephone and by fax.

"There may be about 2,000 hiding in the woods," "they are in an extreme state of destitution, nutritionally, hygienically and medically", "they were hoping for our immediate protection," he wrote in a fax.

The three human rights groups charge Rosier must therefore have been informed in the early afternoon of June 27 of the "Hutu threat" against the Tutsis.

Rosier denies this.

But in the judges' offices, a video filmed on June 28 and seen by AFP that shows an officer informing Rosier of abuse against Tutsis, shook him up.

"It's true that in seeing this scene, it seems to me incredible not to have reacted to the information provided," he told the judges.

Another possibly incriminating document is a declassified "status report" sent to the "crisis cell in Rwanda" by the head of France's Operation Turquoise mission in Rwanda, General Jean-Claude Lafourcade, who has not yet been heard by the judges.

He recalls events in Bisesero and appears to back the theory that the Tutsis fled the massacres in April and were "looking to defend themselves."

The press office declined to comment when asked by AFP.