Mob attacks opposition leader

2010-02-04 09:53

Kigali - Rwandan police arrested five men on Wednesday for attacking a potential presidential candidate who has been accused of stirring ethnic tensions in a country where 800 000 people were killed in the 1994 genocide.

Victoire Ingabire, who heads the yet to be registered United Democratic Forces (UDF), managed to escape the midday assault without injuries but her assistant, Joseph Ntawangundi, was badly beaten, UDF spokesperson Solange Ingabire said.

"She was attacked by several men," Ingabire said, adding that her handbag was snatched as she fled and Ntawangundi was left behind and beaten. "His injuries were really severe because he was attacked by many people."

Victoire Ingabire returned to the east African country last month after a 16-year absence to begin her campaign for August's presidential election, which observers say incumbent Paul Kagame is almost certain to win.

Upon arrival, she was criticised over comments about the memory of ethnic Hutus killed during the 1994 genocide and about the ethnic make-up of the Rwandan government. She said it was dominated by a Tutsi elite.

Discussion of ethnicity is officially taboo in Rwanda. After the genocide, Kagame, a former Tutsi rebel, has tried to replace ethnic labels by forging a strong sense of national identity among its 10 million citizens.

However, critics accuse Kagame of authoritarian rule and his Rwandan Patriotic Front of being intolerant of dissent.

"Playing the ethnic card"

Gregory Mthembu Salter, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the attack may reflect a need for Rwanda to uphold freedom of speech better - an area often criticised by rights groups.

"I haven't heard of a case like this in Rwanda for a long, long time ... you'd think there was space in Rwandan politics for a post-liberation movement, as there have been across the continent," he told Reuters by telephone.

Some 800 000 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were killed in 1994's 100-day slaughter.

Police spokesperson Eric Kayiranga said the arrested men said they were angered by Ingabire's politics.

"They were saying that she was against the unity and reconciliation of Rwanda, that she was talking about (ethnic) divisionism and the genocide," Kayiranga said. "She was aggressed by some men but she is okay."

The government accuses Ingabire of stirring latent tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, and of "playing the ethnic card" to garner support ahead of the elections.

Ingabire denies allegations made in a 2009 UN report linking some UDF members to Rwandan Hutu rebels in eastern Congo, some of whose leaders were responsible for the genocide.