JOHANNESBURG – The body of Rwanda's former spy chief has been found, possibly strangled, in a hotel in South Africa, police said Thursday. Rwandan dissidents accused President Paul Kagame of ordering his assassination.
The suspicious death of Patrick Karegeya, a former Kagame ally who turned against him, follows a pattern of assassinations ordered by the Rwandan president, said Theogene Rudasingwa of the opposition coalition Rwandan National Congress. Kagame's government vehemently denies it has targeted dissidents.
Karegeya's body was discovered in a room at Johannesburg's plush Michelangelo Towers hotel on New Year's Day, and many questions remain unanswered in a country with a high crime rate.
"He was found in the hotel room dead on the bed," said a statement from South African police spokeswoman Lt. Col. Katlego Mogale. "A towel with blood and a rope were found in the hotel room safe. There is a possibility that he might have been strangled." She said a murder investigation has been opened in the death of the 53-year-old who reportedly fled to South Africa in 2007.
Rwandan High Commissioner Vincent Karega told local broadcaster eNCA that talk of assassination is an "emotional reaction and opportunistic way of playing politics." He urged people to wait for a report from the South African police.
Gunmen twice tried to kill Kagame's former chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, while he was living in exile in Johannesburg in 2010. Nyamwasa told The Associated Press in 2012 that Kagame has hunted him and other dissidents around the world, "using hired killer squads."
Karegeya, the former Rwandan intelligence boss, said in a conversation on Nov. 30 with an AP journalist that he understood that his organizing of opposition to Kagame was risky and could cost him his life. Karegeya said his family was being persecuted: his daughter's Rwandan passport was revoked on Kagame's orders while she was trying to leave Uganda, where she grew up in exile, and his own quest for work with the United Nations had been obstructed by Kagame.
Kagame's spokesman and Rwanda's foreign minister could not be reached by telephone and did not immediately respond to email requests for comment.
Rwandan exiles from the president's Tutsi tribe say British, U.S. and Belgian law enforcers have frequently warned them that their government is plotting to kill them. Two British legislators called for Britain to review its relationship with Rwanda in 2011 when they said a Scotland Yard investigation led to the deportation of an alleged Rwandan assassin trying to enter Britain. Two Rwandan exiles said they received warnings from Scotland Yard that the Rwandan government posed an "imminent threat" to their lives.
Kagame's government issued a statement then saying, "Never does the government of Rwanda threaten the lives of its citizens, nor use violence against its people, wherever they live."
In 2012, Sweden and Belgium both deported Rwandan diplomats, Sweden for spying on Rwandan refugees, and Belgium for activities inconsistent with his diplomatic status.
Kagame has long been accused of extra-territorial killings, including ones committed when Karegeya was the feared boss of Rwanda's external security agency.
In 1996, former Interior Minister Seth Sendashonga and businessman Augustin Bugirimfura were gunned down in Nairobi, Kenya. Kenya detained a Rwandan diplomat briefly then released him under pressure from Kagame. Also in Nairobi, legislator and former government intelligence chief Theoneste Lizinde was assassinated in 1998. In 2000, presidential adviser Assiel Kabera was shot dead in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, reportedly by men in military uniform.
"By killing its opponents, the criminal regime in Kigali seeks to intimidate and silence the Rwandan people into submission," said an opposition statement signed by Rudasingwa, a former Rwandan ambassador to the United States. "The regime is hugely mistaken. Such criminal activities make Rwandan people more emboldened to struggle to remove the dictatorship."
Karegeya and Nyamwasa are among four top former Rwandan army officers, all from Kagame's minority Tutsi tribe, who formed an opposition party in exile in 2010. They had fought with Kagame in the Ugandan rebel movement that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986 in Uganda, which is next to Rwanda. Kagame was Museveni's intelligence chief and Karegeya was his lieutenant.
Museveni then allowed them bases and training to form their own Tutsi rebel movement. Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power in 1994 when it ended Rwanda's genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
Kagame's supporters, including the United States and Britain, point to his development achievements. Today, Rwanda has some of the best health, literacy and education rates on the continent and is a technology hub. But Rudasingwa said the international community has turned a blind eye to the assassinations and other crimes.
Rudasingwa and others have said Kagame ordered the 1994 shooting down of the aircraft carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi, an act that ignited the genocide.
A U.N. report published in 2010 noted that Kagame refused to have peace talks as thousands of mainly Tutsi Rwandans were being killed, buying the time that allowed his forces to reach Kigali and take control. The same report, which carries a denial from Kagame's government, accuses the Rwandan-led forces of "a possible genocide" of Rwandan and Congolese Hutus in eastern Congo in the mid-1990s.
Among questions the writers of the report raised is what role may have been played by the U.S. military, which was training Kagame's army. Kagame was trained in U.S. military academies while he was a rebel leader, and his son has been trained in the U.S. since.
Rudasingwa, asked by the AP about the complicity of Kagame's former allies in the mass killings, did not deny responsibility but said: "Look at the human rights abuses he (Kagame) has committed since 1994. Why has he, including myself and Patrick Karegeya and all of us, why ... wouldn't the international community call all of us to account?"
He added that "We don't fear justice."
Rudasingwa said he long has warned the United States, Britain and other Kagame supporters that their efforts to bring peace to eastern Congo will be for naught unless they address the problems in Rwanda. Most recently, Kagame has denied a U.N. report that his government has trained and supplied M23 rebels in eastern Congo.
Rudasingwa said international support for Kagame is helping "to put Rwanda on a course for another bloody conflict but the international community appears to not be interested in preventing another bloodbath in Rwanda."