French soldiers raped Rwandan women who had sought refuge in their bases during the African country’s 1994 genocide and looked on as others did the same, witnesses told a commission on Wednesday.
France denies any wrongdoing by its troops, who formed part of a U.N. peacekeeping force, and has declined to comment on a string of charges from Kigali about its role during the three months of massacres.
French-Rwandan relations sank last month after a French judge called for Rwandan President Paul Kagame to stand trial over the shooting down of a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana. His killing was widely seen as the trigger for the genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people died.
Two ethnic Tutsi women — identified as “Witness Three” and “Witness Two” for security reasons and speaking from a hidden area at the commission — said they had been raped by French troops after fleeing machete-wielding Hutu militia gangs.
“The French used to come to our refugee tents and take girls including myself to give us beer and cigarettes,” said Witness Three. “When we became drunk, they would forcefully start to have sexual intercourse with us, many French soldiers at the same time, one after the other.
“The French, including a colonel, forced me to have oral (and direct) sex with them, at times taking pictures of us.”
Witness Two said she had sought shelter at a French base while looking for her missing children. She said a French soldier looked on as she was raped by a Rwandan man.
“A Rwandan man entered my tent and asked me why I was there ... As I explained, a French soldier entered, hit and pushed me down. Then the Rwandan man forcefully slept with me and the French soldier stood on watching.”
Wednesday’s testimonies were the first direct witness accounts to the commission accusing French troops of rape.
Man shows scars allegedly from beatings
On Tuesday a man only identified as “Witness Four” told the commission he saw French troops take Tutsi women from bushes where they were cowering in fear of Hutu militiamen. He said the women later told him they were raped by the soldiers.
Witness Four also said French soldiers beat him and accused him of helping Kagame’s Tutsi rebels, and he showed the commission scars on his buttocks he said they inflicted.
He also said he survived being thrown into the forest from a French military helicopter flying at low altitude.
France, which sent in forces under a United Nations-authorized operation, said it had no comment on Wednesday, noting only that the commission was set up by the Rwandan authorities and that it had held its own inquiry.
“Also, we are collaborating with the International Tribunal for Rwanda,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told a regular media briefing.
A French judicial source said last month anti-terrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere had written to the United Nations asking for Kagame to be brought before the Arusha-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Kagame has cut diplomatic ties and thousands have joined anti-French protests since Bruguiere’s accusations. Kigali accuses France of trying to distract attention from what it says was Paris’ role in the genocide.
This week the Rwandan commission began a second round of hearings into allegations French forces trained and armed the local extremists who planned the bloodshed.