Rwanda: Habyarimana killed by his own army, UK experts report
The presidential jet carrying Habyarimana and his entourage was brought down on the evening of April 6, 1994, as he returned from a heads of state summit in Dar es Salaam where he had made a commitment to integrate fighters of the Rwanda Patriotic Front into the armed forces and to hold elections for a new all-inclusive national government.
This commitment would fulfil the final requirements of a peace agreement arrived at in talks that started in 1992, to return peace to the country which had been at war since October 1, 1990 when exiled Rwandans launched a guerrilla campaign from neighbouring Uganda.
After it was hit by two missiles at about 20.30hrs local time, the jet, which was on the final approach to Kigali International Airport, burst into flames before crashing just outside the compound of the presidential residence.
Although Habyarimana's assassination has often been projected as the trigger to the mass killings that left nearly a million Tutsi dead and moderate Hutu dead, the inquiry report, a copy of which The EastAfrican has seen, paints a picture of a system that was imploding from within as disgruntled elements from the president's inner circle turned on him, to plot his death.
Coming more than 15 years after the event, it is the first open inquiry into the events and broader circumstances surrounding the death of president Habyarimana.
In the absence of physical and technical evidence such as flight data recorders that would have aided the investigation, the report's findings are largely based on eyewitness accounts and the analysis of those accounts and remnants of physical evidence by experts from the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom based at Cranfield University -- who conclude that the projectiles that brought down the Dassault Falcon 50 plane registration 9XR-NN came from areas controlled by Habyarimana's own forces.
The inquiry also finds evidence of a plot to assassinate the former president, going back months before the actual event as a number of print and electronic media houses allied to the extremist wing of the ruling party predicted the act.
The experts from Cranfield University were commissioned by the inquiry team to draw technical conclusions from analysis of whatever remained of the wreckage, specifically to determine if the tri-jet was brought down by a missile and if possible the type of missile involved. It had been alleged immediately after Habyarimana's death, that his jet was shot down by Russian-made SAM 16 missiles from a valley in the vicinity of the airport by operatives of the Rwanda Patriotic Front led by then rebel leader Maj Paul Kagame.
However, eyewitness accounts rule out this possibility as the area was heavily patrolled by Habyarimana's presidential guard.
Though not naming the specific type of missile, the British experts rule out the possibility that a SAM 16 missile was used in the attack.
Over the course of the 15-month investigation that began on December 1, 2007, members of the inquiry team recorded testimonies from eyewitnesses, many of them former members of the presidential guard as well as members of the Belgian peacekeeping contingent who were within the crash zone and either witnessed the attack, or its immediate aftermath. The inquiry also relied on testimonies extracted by French judicial authorities from indicted masterminds of the genocide, now in detention at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha.
Witness number one, codified as GM who was part of the Belgian contingent of Unamir, places the launch of the missiles that brought down the aircraft at the military camp just below the airport.
"On April 6, 1994 towards 20.30 while I was on duty in the radio room, I noticed that the lights on the runway had just lit up. The runway was only lit up during the landing manoeuvres of the plane. I therefore left the control tower and leant on the guardrail of the platform to watch the plane come in, to land.
"At the moment where the plane approached the airport, we did not know which plane it was. I saw a luminous point leave the ground. The direction of the start of this point was the Kanombe camp. One could have thought that it was a shooting star by virtue of its configuration.
"When I saw the point take the direction of the plane, I realised that it must be missile fire. At that moment, the lights of the plane went out but the plane did not explode following the first shooting. The theory of the missile fire was reinforced when I saw a second luminous point, the same as the first coming from the same place, taking the direction of the plane. The plane exploded at that moment and fell more or less 500 metres from the president's residence, which was in line with the landing runway," he told the inquiry.
His account is corroborated by several other witnesses who were within the airport precincts at the time.
For their part, the British experts concluded: "Analysis of the possible metal fragments both free standing and embedded recovered from the wreckage and detailed above has been carried out in the UK. The conclusion of the analysis is that the embedded fragments are not consistent with having come from a SAM 16 warhead of Russian manufacture. The embedded material may have originated from a missile manufactured by another source or may have been generated as a result of the explosion of the aircraft.
"On the basis of the evidence both provided by way of witness statements and as a result of the authors' examination of possible missile launch locations contained within these statements it may be concluded that the aircraft was destroyed by one or more surface to air missiles fired from a position within the envelope marked by the authors on the attached map at Annex G."