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Rwandan Presidential Candidates Trade Accusations - 2003-08-21

Leading candidates in Rwanda's upcoming presidential election are trading accusations of harassment and intimidation. The independent commission overseeing the election admits there are problems.

The electoral campaign for Rwanda's August 25 presidential ballot is heating up, with leading candidates accusing each other of harassment and ethnic discrimination.

President Paul Kagame, who is the candidate for the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, accuses rival candidate Faustin Twagiramungu, who is a Hutu, of stoking up the same ethnic hatred that led to the 1994 massacre in which Hutu extremists killed up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Mr. Twagiramungu, in turn, accuses the Patriotic Front of harassing his supporters, preventing people from attending his rallies and other forms intimidation.

While neither side would accept blame, both agree with the U.S. State Department that there are problems in the run-up to the election.

National Electoral Commission chairman Chrisologue Karangwa says State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was right in expressing concern Wednesday about at least one candidate's incitement of ethnic divisions.

"I can assure you that we have facts, we have proof, that the candidate Mr. Twagiramungu is using underground strategies, calling people to base their votes on ethnicity," he said.

But the electoral commission chairman says he has seen no signs of intimidation or harassment during the campaign. He says the commission has representatives all over the country who report back every day and who have never relayed any such incidents.

Mr. Twagiramungu denies any efforts to divide people along ethnic lines, and accuses the opposition of harassing his supporters.

"The harassment goes on," said Faustin Twagiramungu. "We got calls this morning from other people who have been threatened and frankly some of them are not spending the night in their houses."

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it was concerned about the pre-election problems and called for greater political cooperation to ensure the presidential election is free and fair.

Earlier this year, Rwandan voters turned out in large numbers to approve the country's new constitution, and interest in the August 25 presidential election is high.