Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) condemn the killings of hundreds of unarmed civilians by soldiers of the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) and by armed insurgents in a series of incidents in the northwestern prefecture of Gisenyi on August 8, 9 and 10.
The first of these incidents took place just one day after the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation (HRFOR) published a report documenting the massacre by RPA soldiers of more than 2,000 persons, many of them unarmed children, women and the elderly in northwestern Rwanda during the preceding months.
These massacres took place in the context of a continuing armed struggle between RPA soldiers and armed groups composed largely of soldiers of the former Rwandan government (ex-FAR) and of members of the militia that participated in the 1994 genocide of Rwandan Tutsi. The Rwandan government has the right and duty to protect its citizens, but such defense must be conducted within the parameters of international humanitarian law: there is no excuse for killing unarmed civilians or combatants who have laid down their arms. The slaughter of unarmed civilians by the insurgents is similarly an inexcusable human rights abuse.
The number and scale of attacks that cost civilian lives have multiplied in the last several months. Human Rights Watch and FIDH deplore the continued delivery of arms to the region, including the recent resumption of arms sales to the Rwandan government by South Africa -- exacerbating the situation and facilitating the use of deadly force against unarmed civilians.
According to reports from a number of independent sources, including diplomats in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, RPA soldiers and insurgents exchanged fire in the crowded market of Mahoko at 10 am August 8. One report states that the firing continued for two hours and that the RPA fired mortars into the market. Independent sources estimate that 400 people were slain, most of them unarmed civilians. Rwandan authorities declare that "several" civilians were killed in the incident.
Later that day, armed rebels attacked the commune jail in Rubavu where hundreds of persons were detained on charges of having participated in the 1994 genocide. Witnesses declare that RPA soldiers drove away the rebels and then killed 200 to 300 detainees. Rwandan authorities reportedly admit that 185 detainees were killed but say the insurgents were responsible for these deaths. According to these official accounts, RPA troops had withdrawn from the immediate vicinity of the jail in order to regroup. In their absence, the insurgents took over the jail, liberated the detainees, and killed those who refused to join forces with them.
Rwandan authorities admit that at least ninety-five detainees were also killed at the commune jail at Kanama that same afternoon. Preliminary independent reports put the number of fatalities from this incident at approximately 200.
Authorities ordered the local population to bury the dead in mass graves in each community. Witnesses report that gunfire was also heard on August 8 and 9 in Muhira, Bisezi, Kanzenze and Nyundo sectors.
That evening and the next day, reportedly drunk RPA soldiers looted throughout the area.
According to the testimony received by Human Rights Watch and FIDH, the RPA moved armed personnel carriers into the area on August 9 and witnesses report having heard mortar fire. These accounts state that the RPA deliberately killed an undetermined number of civilians on August 9, some of whom were apparently identified on a list as persons to target.
On August 10, at 7 pm, the insurgents attacked a school at Gisa, where students were meeting with an officer of the national police. Reports do not indicate the number of persons killed or wounded in this attack.
Reports indicate that large numbers of people have fled their homes, some heading for the town of Gisenyi, others moving west towards the border with Congo.
The Rwandan government has arrested thirteen of its soldiers in connection with these incidents.
To the government of Rwanda:
Order RPA troops to stop killing unarmed civilians immediately.
Carry out a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation of these killings and make public the findings. Continue to arrest and bring to trial as soon as possible all those apparently implicated in the incidents.
Guarantee full access to U.N. and nongovernmental human rights monitors, to organizations providing humanitarian aid, and to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection officers.
To the insurgents:
Order your troops to stop killing unarmed civilians immediately.
To the international community:
Bring all possible pressure to bear on the Rwandan government and the insurgents to halt the slaughter of unarmed civilians and to observe international humanitarian law. Condition financial and other assistance on a halt to these killings.
To the United Nations:
Revive the International Commission of Inquiry (Rwanda), implement the important recommendations it made in 1996, and provide it with a new mandate to investigate arms trafficking in the Great Lakes region (including Rwanda, Burundi and Congo) and propose to the Security Council specific and concrete measures aimed at curbing the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the area.
The Human Rights Field Operation should publish immediately and fully all available information related to deliberate killings of civilians.