PARIS, France — French authorities have arrested the widow of the former Rwandan president killed in a plane crash widely considered the event that sparked the east African country’s 1994 genocide.
Agathe Habyarimana was taken into custody Tuesday at her home in Courcouronnes, south of Paris, on a Rwandan warrant issued on genocide-related charges, according to a judicial official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and could not be named.
Rwanda welcomed the arrest, conducted just days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Rwanda and said that Paris wanted “all those responsible for the genocide to be found and punished,” including those believed to be living in France.
Some 500,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, were massacred by radical Hutus in less than 100 days after a plane crash that killed president Juvenal Habyarimana. The massacres ended when Tutsi-led rebels under current President Paul Kagame defeated the Hutu extremists in July 1994.
Agathe Habyarimana — a Hutu like her husband — had been helped out of Rwanda by French forces April 9, 1994, and lived in what was then known as Zaire, now called Congo, before moving to France.
But in 2004 France rejected her request for political asylum, alleging she was at the heart of the regime responsible for the genocide.
A court last year denied her appeal of the decision, saying her arguments that she had no power and merely took care of her house and family were not credible. The ruling, based on documents and testimonies, said she had de facto authority in state affairs.
Her lawyer denounced Tuesday’s arrest, claiming France had done nothing after receiving a Rwandan extradition request in November.
Philippe Meilhac said the arrest coincided with “an increasingly heavy political context” — a reference to Sarkozy’s vow to repair ties with Rwanda.
Meilhac said Agathe Habyarimana wanted “to explain herself before a justice system (that is) independent,” but would not consent to be extradited.
Before a French court rules on her extradition, Habyarimana must go before Paris prosecutors.
The head of Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide claimed Tuesday that Agathe Habyarimana was the “main architect” of the genocide. But while Jean de Dieu Mucyo welcomed her arrest, he said “we don’t expect France to release her.” France is pursuing its own investigation, with jurisdiction based on the fact that two pilots flying the plane that crashed were French.
The Rwandan government praised the French decision to arrest Habyarimana. “We are encouraged by these new developments and the fact that the long arm of the law has finally taken its course,” Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama said.
Rwanda has alleged a French role in the genocide, often accusing France of training and arming the militias and former government troops who led the genocide. In 1998, a French parliamentary panel absolved France of responsibility in the slaughter.
A French advocacy group, meanwhile, has said France is a “haven” for those who helped perpetrate the genocide, and it has filed 16 lawsuits against people living here.
Sarkozy, the first French head of state to visit Rwanda in 25 years, has referred to “serious errors of judgment” and “a form of blindness when we didn’t see the genocidal aspect of the government of the president who was assassinated.”