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Rwandan pleads guilty to genocide

The prime minister of the interim government that directed the 1994 slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda pleaded guilty to genocide Friday and has agreed to testify against others accused of planning the massacres.

Before a jammed gallery at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Jean Kambanda, prime minister of Rwanda during the 100 days that majority Hutus sought to exterminate the Tutsis, said he was guilty of committing a crime against humanity and of five other genocide-related charges.

Kambanda acknowledged he conspired with other government leaders to direct massacres, set up a network of roadblocks to trap Tutsis, arm the population and militias and allow local authorities to oversee killings. He also incited the population and army to kill Tutsis and their sympathizers.

Kambanda, 42, is the highest former government official being held by the tribunal, which has captured 25 suspects accused of playing major roles in connection with massacres that killed at least 500,000 Tutsis and their sympathizers. He is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 31.

Prosecutors and human rights activists hailed his guilty plea as a critical breakthrough for the tribunal, which was set up in 1994 by the United Nations and operates independently of the Rwandan government's justice system.

Aside from providing key evidence in future trials, Kambanda also might supply crucial details about the planning of the genocide and related events, such as the mysterious downing of then-President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane in April 1994, which prompted the eruption of ethnic bloodletting.

Virtually all of the suspects at the tribunal, and many of the 130,000 awaiting trial by the Rwandan government, were expected as a central pillar of their defense to deny that genocide even occurred and to contend instead that the killings occurred as the country was gripped by civil war.

Kambanda's plea is likely "to create panic among the suspects both in Rwanda and at the tribunal because their whole philosophy, their whole ideology _ to deny that there was a genocide _ is no longer valid," said Rakiya Omaar, director of African Rights, a London-based human rights organization.

Tribunal officials suggested that Kambanda's guilty plea was not connected to the 22 public executions carried out by the Rwandan government last Friday after its own separate proceedings. But under the tribunal's rules, he cannot be tried in Rwandan courts for the same crimes.

In a statement to the tribunal, Kambanda suggests he chose to admit guilt in part because he wants to "contribute to national reconciliation in Rwanda," said one source familiar with the document. The statement was not released to the public Friday.

In addition, Kambanda confirms the Rwandan government planned the genocide, the source said. "It was a state policy. (Hutus) wanted to exterminate the Tutsis. He makes it crystal clear."