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February 24, 2010

Rwanda, France Try to Mend Ties Haunted By Painful Past

French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the first visit to Rwanda by a French head of state since the 1994 genocide.  The president admitted mistakes were made by France and the international community, but stopped short of directly apologizing for his nation's conduct surrounding the bloody events.  France hopes to turn a new page in relations with Rwanda remain overshadowed by a troubled past.

Last year France and Rwanda officially restored diplomatic ties, three years after Rwandan President Paul Kagame abruptly ordered the French ambassador out of his country.

Relations between the two nations had been tense for years, but charges issued against nine of his aides by a French judge during a genocide inquiry in 2006 were apparently the final straw for the Rwandan leader.  Rwanda's government has long-accused France of giving friendly support to the ethnic Hutu militias that led the bloody extermination campaign nearly 16 years ago, and of offering safe harbor to "genocidaires" ever since.

The bitterness within the leadership of this former French-speaking Belgian colony against France has run so deep that Rwanda has switched its official language to English, even taking the unorthodox step of joining the Commonwealth, despite the fact it never fell under British rule.

But both sides appear willing to begin repairing the battered ties.  A day before announcing President Nicolas Sarkozy's trip to Rwanda, French authorities arrested a Rwandan doctor residing and working in France.  He has long been named as a suspected genocide perpetrator.

Rwanda re-opened its embassy in Paris on Monday.

But the old wounds, are deeply cut and have been left festering for years.

The head of an umbrella group representing genocide survivors, Theodore Simburudari, is demanding an apology from France for its alleged role in arming the radical Hutu militias.

He says that multiple reports have evidenced French support to the genocide perpetrators, and he says he wants France to publicly admit it was involved in the massacre of Rwandan Tutsis.

But an outright apology does not appear forthcoming from France, which has always denied direct links to the slaughter.  The French have indicated that their new policy towards Rwanda will be attempting to toe a thin line - acknowledging previous mistakes, but shying away from any dramatic apologies.

In previewing President Sarkozy's upcoming visit, French Ambassador to Rwanda Laurent Contini cautioned Rwandans his leader has made it clear that he is not interested in dwelling on previous controversial French actions.

"My president when he came into power was very clear about the past.  He will not be apologizing, whatever the past is," said Contini.

He said that saying "sorry" was not something that was discussed as a requirement for the diplomatic rapprochement.

"When we negotiated the restoration of diplomatic relations with Rwanda, this line was very clearly defined.  We have this understanding that our restoration is not based on apologies and repentance.  So then now it is open to my leadership to go further to this line," Contini explained.

Advocacy groups have long maintained that a number of genocide offenders had taken refuge in France.  AFP reports that France is now investigating 12 cases of Rwandan suspects residing in its territory, but that only three have been charged.

President Sarkozy is also reportedly expected to form a new panel to look into France's role in the 1994 bloodshed.  A previous parliamentary commission 12 years ago had absolved the French government of responsibility in the mass killings.

In the incident that sparked the 2006 dispute, President Kagame's nine aides were charged for the 1994 death of Rwanda's then-leader, Juvenal Habyarimana.  The Rwandan president's plane was shot down, an event used by the radical Hutu to launch the ethnic massacre.  Mr. Kagame, who led the Tutsi-rebel force credited with ending the genocide, was accused by the judge of ordering the assassination.

After the charges, the Rwandan government commissioned a probe into the assassination attack.  Its findings, considered the most in-depth look yet into the incident, were reported late last year, and accused President Habyarimana's own inner circle of plotting his demise.  The Hutu leader was returning from a peace summit in which he had reached a deal with Kagame's rebel army.

About 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed in the 100 days following the assassination.