By Julien Ponthus
BRUSSELS, July 4 (Reuters) - A Belgian court found a former Rwandan army major guilty on Wednesday of murdering 10 Belgian peacekeepers and an undetermined number of civilians in the early days of the African republic’s 1994 genocide.
However, the jury acquitted Bernard Ntuyahaga of involvement in the murder of then Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and in the killing of civilians in the district of Butare between June and July 1994.
The Belgian U.N. soldiers were killed a day after the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, triggering the genocide in which Hutu-led government forces and ethnic militias killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Prosecutors said Ntuyahaga took the peacekeepers from the residence of the prime minister, whom they were trying to protect, and handed them over to fellow soldiers at a military camp in the capital, Kigali, where they were beaten to death, shot or slain with machetes.
Ntuyahaga’s defence said he was a political scapegoat, who had only been passing the prime minister’s residence by chance and had given the Belgians a ride at their request.
"Sooner or later the truth will triumph, I believe that. I remain patient and I keep faith, thank you," Ntuyahaga told the court moments before the jury retired to consider its verdict.
The 12 jurors will reconvene on Thursday to decide on the sentence. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
"I did not have any illusions," Ntuyahaga’s Lawyer Luc De Temmerman told reporters, adding his client would appeal against the verdict on procedural grounds.
Belgian law does not allow appeals on the substance of the case at this stage of procedure.
"I am happy, I hope he will get life," said Joseph Plescias, brother of Louis Plescias, one of the 10 soldiers killed.
Christine Dupont, widow of Belgian peacekeeper Christophe Dupont, said families of victims felt relieved the emotionally draining trial was reaching its end.
"It’s a very important day, a day we have been waiting for for the last thirteen years," she told Reuters Television before the verdict was announced.
"Those weeks have been long and tough for the families with all the atrocities we heard during this trial," she added.
The killing of the peacekeepers triggered the pullout of U.N. forces, opening the way for the genocide to spread.
"If Belgian troops had stayed (in Rwanda) we could have saved hundreds of thousands of people," Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told the court in his testimony in May.
The trial was held at a time when the role of the French and Belgian governments is being increasingly questioned.
Documents published by the French daily Le Monde on Monday suggested Paris was aware in early 1994 that genocide was being planned but did not stop supporting the Hutu-led government.
Belgium has been seeking justice for its murdered soldiers for 13 years. Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda dropped genocide and war crimes charges against Ntuyahaga in 1999.
After lengthy attempts to extradite him, the former officer flew to Belgium voluntarily in 2004 but the trial only began in April this year.
It is not the first time Rwandans have stood trial in Belgium over the genocide. Two Catholic nuns, a university professor and a businessman were sentenced in 2001 to between 12 and 20 years’ jail for aiding the mass murders.