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"It is true, I killed 900 people'

Published Oct. 3, 2005

Five men and a teenage boy went on trial Thursday.

One of them admitted killing 900 people in the Rwandan holocaust that began exactly 12 months ago.

The first in what could be a lengthy series of genocide trials began almost seven hours late. It was then adjourned because none of the prosecution witnesses was present.

Looking frightened and dressed in dirty pink prison uniforms, the first six of up to 30,000 jailed suspects appeared in a magistrates' court in the capital, Kigali.

They were accused of taking part in the genocide of up to a million Tutsis and allied Hutus between last April and June.

"I am going to be accused of genocide. It is true, I killed 900 people, and I expect to be executed," Musoro Ndura said as he was led to his place in the court.

After a 45-minute hearing, a three-judge panel granted an unspecified delay in the trial. The prosecutor said he needed more time to investigate the cases against the five adults, as did a lawyer representing the youngest defendant, a 17-year-old.

The crowd cheered as the accused were loaded into the back of a green pickup guarded by three soldiers and driven back to Kigali's central prison.

The trial began on the first anniversary of the death of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana in a mysterious plane crash that was called an assassination.

His death triggered the start of the three-month killings and the exodus of some 2-million Hutus into neighboring Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi.

A large crowd, mainly Tutsis bereaved in the slaughter by hardline Hutus, had packed the streets around the court as the defendants were brought in under tight security.

"These people deserve to be executed publicly if they are found guilty. After all that is what they did to our families," said 58-year-old Francois Kayimba, shaking with fury, as he stood outside the court.

The massacres, blamed mostly on Hutu militias backed by the former Hutu regime, began just hours after Habyarimana's death. The slaughter ended with the Tutsi-led rebel Rwandan Patriot Front victory in July.

The teenage defendant arraigned Thursday was Ngomayubu Nkulikingoma. He is accused of killing six people and throwing them into a river in his hometown of Gitarama.

Theophile Kazeneza is defending him on behalf of UNICEF, a job he admits is risky because most of his fellow Tutsis don't believe the defendants deserve a trial.

"But it is a risk that must be taken in the cause of justice," Kazeneza said.

No one has agreed to defend the others.

The other defendants just answered their names read out by state prosecutor Silas Munyigashali. Those found guilty of genocide could face the death penalty by firing squad.

An international tribunal, to try ringleaders who planned last year's massacres, is to start in Tanzania at the end of the year.

Its maximum penalty will be life imprisonment.

Critics said Rwanda was incapable of holding a free and fair trial, but the U.N. has welcomed the start of the trials.

"Either one waits a long time for a perfect, or near-perfect system, or one accepts an imperfect system which is ready, start on that and try and improve on it," U.N. special representative Shaharyar Khan said in Kigali on Wednesday.

Francoise Bouchet Saulnier, legal adviser for the Paris-based aid group Doctors Without Borders, said the real problem was that the Rwandan judicial system was destroyed by the war.

One human-rights group estimates that 80 percent of the judges and judicial staff are dead, have fled the country or are in jail. There are few defense lawyers, hardly any desks, paper or photocopiers.

Many Rwandans feel justice will never be delivered.

"I had a family," said 26-year-old Evariste Twahirwa. "Now they are all dead. I had friends. They are all dead. I had a fiancee. She is dead. How can we talk about reconciliation with people who killed your family?

"I think the only solution is to kill the killers."

_ Information from Reuters, the Associated Press, New York Times and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.