Last updated: March 2, 2010 10:08 pm

Rwanda’s former first lady held in genocide case

A former first lady of Rwanda, suspected of helping to mastermind the country’s genocide, was arrested near Paris on Tuesday in one of the most significant detentions since the mass killings.

Agathe Habyarimana, the widow of the former president Juvenal Habyarimana, was detained on the strength of an international warrant issued last year by Rwanda, less than a week after France’s president made a conciliatory visit to the African country. The arrest underlines France’s new desire to co-operate with Rwanda and rebuild relations.

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Rwanda has criticised France for failing to pursue genocide suspects who found refuge on its territory. Mrs Habyarimana has lived in France for several years.

Accusations of French complicity in the killing of 800,000 people in 1994 have poisoned relations between the two countries ever since the former rebels who helped stop the genocide seized power in Rwanda.

Last week Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, paid a visit to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and said: “We want those responsible for the genocide to be found and punished . . . Are there any in France? That is for justice to decide.”

The former first lady was seen as the kingpin of the Hutu extremists, known as the “akazu” – meaning “little house” in Kinyarwanda – who were suspected of planning and directing the genocide of the minority Tutsis and of any Hutus who opposed the massacres.

She was often described as more powerful than her husband whose death, when his aircraft was shot down, triggered the onset of the genocide.

Mr Habyarimana had angered akazu hardliners by signing a power-sharing agreement with the Tutsi rebels.

Mrs Habyarimana has denied all accusations of her alleged involvement in the genocide. In January her family rejected the finding of an official Rwandan investigation that she knew of the plot to shoot down her husband’s aircraft and failed to warn him.

Tharcisse Karugarama, Rwanda’s justice minister, told the Financial Times on Tuesday: “We are encouraged that the long arm of the law is taking its course and we hope that sooner or later the truth will be told.”

He said Rwanda had requested Mrs Habyarimana’s extradition, but no response from the French authorities had yet been received.

Mr Sarkozy acknowledged last week that before and during the genocide France had made “errors of judgment, errors of politics, which had utterly tragic consequences”.

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