Part III The BBC Report – The Downing of Habyarimana’s Plane

The Rwandan Genocide Revisited:

Part III The BBC Report – The Downing of Habyarimana’s Plane


Howard Adelman

The BBC video is available at

One of the most important parts of the BBC documentary is its account of the shooting down of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane that triggered the genocide and massacres. The most outrageous claim that Jane Corbin makes in her BBC documentary on the Rwanda genocide is that President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was guilty of ordering the plane of President Habyarimana shot down on 6 April 1994 when the plane was returning to Kigali and on a flight path to land at the international airport. The plane was downed by two surface-to-air missiles. Since the downing of the plane triggered the killing of at least 800,000 moderate Hutus and Tutsis, therefore Kagame has to assume a good part of the responsibility for the genocide according to Kagame’s critics, who accuse him of responsibility for ordering the firing of the surface-to-air missiles. Even if Kagame did shoot down the plane, it is a very large and questionable leap to conclude that he shares a major responsibility for the genocide. I will deal with this extension of the accountability issue after I examine Jane Corbin’s evidence for and the evidence against her thesis that Kagame shot the plane down.

The claim is outrageous, not because it has not been made many times before, but, after all this time, the charges are repeated with precisely the same kind of slim evidence relying almost entirely on the testimony of dissident Rwandans, more recently by those who were once prominent in Kagame’s entourage and carry considerably more credibility. They include: key former high officials from Rwanda: General Déogratias Nsabimana, Chief of Staff of the Rwandan Defence Forces (the FAR), the head of the President’s personal security, Major Thaddée Bagaragaza, the key adviser to the President’s military cabinet, Colonel Elie Sagatwa, and the foreign affairs advisor to the President, Juvénal Renaho.

Further, the charge is made without any consideration of the overwhelming evidence supporting the predominant hypothesis that the plane was shot down by missiles launched by the Rwandan Presidential Guard under the control of Hutu extremists.

There is consensus on some items:

  1. The plane was shot down at about 8:30 p.m. by two surface-to -air missiles that hit the wing and tail of the French Dassault Falcon and the plane crashed into the garden of the Presidential Palace;
  2. The RPF, to UNAMIR’s knowledge, did not have surface-to-air missiles;
  3. The Rwandan army did have surface-to-air missiles of the type believed to have downed the plane, but no definitive proof has been found to equate the missile fragments with those missiles, particularly since the crash site was scoured by the Presidential Guard;
  4. Radio Mille Collines, the propaganda radio outlet for the extremist Akazu, stopped broadcasting its program as soon as the announcer reported the plane was coming in for a landing, and before it was hit by missiles; the radio station started to broadcast classical music;
  5. No sooner had the plane crashed than a bugle sounded mustering the Rwandan army soldiers to battle dress;
  6. Within minutes of the downing of the plane, military roadblocks went up all over Kigali, many if not most, manned by Interahamwe militias;
  7. About an hour after the crash, gunfire and explosions were heard at the Rwandan army military camp, but neither the source nor the target of the explosions were identified, though the soldiers generally believed that they were being attacked by RPF troops stationed in Kigali; no evidence has been found of an attack at that time;
  8. It was not clear and understood by the vast majority of residents of Kigali until about an hour after the crash that the President and the military chief of staff had been killed;
  9. When the officers met to consider a successor to the Chief of Staff, instead of selecting from the order of command, a relatively junior officer, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, was found by General Dallaire already to be in charge;

In addition to the items above, the BBC documentary omits the following vital information:

  1. President Habyarimana in Tanzania had finally agreed to a process for implementing the August 1993 Arusha Accords that would bring about a coalition government on very favourable terms to the RPF;
  2. The Akazu, or the extremist racist Hutu Power faction in the dominant ruling MRND party, adamantly opposed implementing the Arusha Accords as the Accords would entirely deprive the faction of power since the Akazu faction had not been allocated any cabinet positions and had sworn it would take any measures needed to prevent the RPF from sharing political power in Rwanda;
  3. No mention was made of the 11 January 1994 cable in which General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UNAMIR peacekeeping force, warned that a massive slaughter by extremist Hutu elements had been planned, and that there were secret weapons caches to be made available to extremist militias, the infamou;
  4. Luc Marchal, commander of the Belgian battalion in UNAMIR, and interviewed in the documentary, was not asked in that documentary about the refusal of Rwandan soldiers to allow him to recover the flight recorder; the flight recorder was never recovered and made available to any independent body;
  5. Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, though an opponent of the RPF but not part of the Akazu, as well as almost all the other moderate Hutus in the cabinet, were slaughtered overnight in their homes after the downing of the plane;
  6. Ten Belgian peacekeepers guarding her were also killed;
  7. The right wing Hutu members of the cabinet could not be located on the evening of the crash by Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana who was trying to call an emergency cabinet meeting; nor could they be located during the night but only emerged unharmed the next day;
  8. When General Dallaire later that evening sought to meet with the military heads about the Belgian soldiers who had been arrested by the Presidential Guard to discuss the crisis, he found Col. Théoneste Bagosora, the director of the office of the Minister of Defence, and well known as an extremist, in charge.
  9. Several witnesses, including a Belgian military officer, identified the approximate origin of the two missiles as a government military base;

All this lead to initial and continuing suspicion that the Hutu extremists had downed the plane. After all, only the extremists seemed prepared to respond to the news and seemed to have known what happened instantly, while the government was caught by surprise and responded initially in a totally confused way. In Jane Corbin’s indictment of Paul Kagame as responsible for the downing of the plane, she claimed that the RPF had smuggled the surface-to-air missiles into their military camp in Kigali, but offers no evidence for this, no hypothesis of how they could accomplish that given the weight of the missiles and the security on all roads leading to the capital. Nor does Jane Corbin ever say that the proposition that the RPF had downed the plane has been around since very soon after 6 April 1994. Nor does she report that all the American agencies – the CIA, military intelligence, etc. – all put the blame on the extremists and dismissed the RPF hypothesis as far-fetched.

The extremists had a motive. The RPF did not. The timing of events, following the downing of the plane, supports the contention that a plan was simply unfolding. On the other hand, definitive evidence is unavailable to support blaming the catastrophe on Hutu extremists. When a French magistrate, Jean-Louis Brugière, in 2004 conducted his own investigation, he argued that the RPF had been behind the assassinations, basing his conclusion, as the BBC did, on dissident military officers who had fled Rwanda. The magistrate used the testimony of a lieutenant who claimed he was part of the team ordered to fire the missile. Former senior military officers claim in the documentary that they were in the room when Paume gave his orders.

The rumours of RPF responsibility could possibly be true – after all, Paul Resesabanga, the manager of Hotel Milles Collines and the hero of the Hollywood film, Hotel Rwanda, believes that it was Kagame who was responsible. Kagame could, in some way, have smuggled his missiles into the RPF camp, but someone would have to explain how the location of the site of the missile launch was pinpointed as Camp Kanobe, a camp controlled by the FAR and the home base of the Presidential Guard. According to most eye-witness testimony, the launch location was nowhere near the RPF military compound, and the RPF soldiers were confined in Kigali to their quarters.

Red Cross officials did, however, testify that RPF forces were on alert and in motion very soon after the plane went down. But RPF intelligence had expected a possible extremist putsch and knew the precarious position of the battalion. Plans had been prepared well in advance to respond quickly to any scenario that indicated a right wing attempt to seize power. Given the dangerous position to the battalion in Kigali surrounded by enemies, why would Kagame have not insured the safety of the battalion earlier if he planned and gave the order to shoot down the plane?

In spite of the overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the extremists thesis, and though any defence attorney could punch huge holes in the hypothesis blaming Paul Kagame, nevertheless a reputable broadcaster, without a fair examination of all the evidence, endorses a thesis that shifts blame for the genocide away from the genocidaires to Paul Kagame. Dissenters who escaped Rwanda were the ones who fingered Kagame. They had every reason to blacken his name, including doing so to help insure their own safety because Kagame would then be embarrassed to have them assassinated. Further, almost all the other soldiers and officers who pointed an accusatory finger at Kagame subsequently offered sworn testimony that retracted their charges. Why did they make those charges? Why were the charges subsequently retracted? Why was the hard evidence for the hypothesis so meagre? Given any reasonable weighing of the evidence, why do people give the Kagame guilt thesis credence, including, in this case, Jane Corbin, an experienced journalist?

The assassination of President Habyarimana by means of the missile attack upon his plane set off a round of killing of opposition political figures by elements of Habyarimana’s Presidential Guard. Why does Corbin claim that killings of members of the former ruling party were carried out by the RPF? ALL the evidence is to the contrary. Corbin offers no evidence to support her assertion. Massacres of Hutu moderates and Tutsi civilians by Hutu militias soon followed in Kigali, and then spread across the country.

Every attempt to initiate a new investigation has been shot down by responsible parties because the basis for opening an investigation was so flimsy. That is the typical logic of conspiracy theorists. Jane Corbin never even entertains the possibility that all of these bodies in weighing the evidence, found the case against Kagame to be very slim and the case for the other hypothesis to be overwhelming, though none of these official bodies ever came down on one side or the other. All the bodies adamantly refused to open an inquiry into Kagame’s involvement.

What about the charge that Paul Kagame is a factor in the Tutsi genocide if indeed he is the main culprit in shooting down the plane? When Herschel Grynszpan assassinated Ernst vom Rath, a Nazi diplomat, in Paris on 7 November 1938, a murder which was used by Hitler to instigate Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, was Grynszpan largely to blame for the Holocaust or even the night of the breaking glass when Jewish synagogues, community centres, businesses and even cemeteries, were vandalized? The illogic of such a claim astounds one. Why would the BBC not catch such outlandish propositional reasoning, especially since logic of the argument undercuts the Jane Corbin thesis so deeply?

But what do conspiracy theorists know of logic, let alone a balanced weighing of evidence!

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