PARIS (Reuters) - French intelligence agents spied on the children of Rwanda’s most-wanted genocide fugitive to track him down to an apartment in a Paris suburb and end a 26-year-long manhunt, the head of the police unit who arrested Felicien Kabuga said.
The inquiry gathered pace in March after an intelligence sharing meeting between investigators from France, Britain, and Belgium, home to some of Kabuga’s children, as well as Europe’s Europol law enforcement agency and a team from a U.N. tribunal.
The coronavirus lockdown paralysing most of Europe meant many investigations were put on hold, allowing a focus on Kabuga’s file, said Eric Emeraux, head of the Gendarmerie’s Central Office for Combating Crimes Against Humanity.
The dragnet subsequently closed in on one of the alleged chief financiers of the Rwandan genocide, suspected of bankrolling and arming the militias that slaughtered 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.
“We realised ... that trail from the children protecting their father converged on Asnieres-sur-Seine,” Emeraux told Reuters, referring to a Paris suburb. “We also discovered one of his children was renting an apartment there.”
Wiretaps were installed and the property placed under surveillance. Intelligence indicated there was good reason to believe that someone other than one of his offspring was residing in the apartment.
“We decided to open the door, without being entirely sure of who we would find inside,” Emeraux said. “I didn’t sleep the night before.”
The 84-year-old fugitive had been living in a third-floor flat on the Rue du Reverend Pere Christian Gilbert in Asnieres-sur-Seine, a well-off neighbourhood on the northern fringe of Paris.
Neighbours described a frail, elderly man who said little and before the lockdown would often stroll outside of his apartment. One resident in the same block said Kabuga might have lived there for four or five years.
Reuters has not been able to find any public comment made by Kabuga over the years about the charges. French lawyer Emmanuel Altit said he will be part of the defense team. He did not respond to a subsequent request seeking comment from Kabuga.
Altit was a senior lawyer on the team which successfully secured former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo’s acquittal on charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in January 2019.
On Saturday, a squad of 16 elite officers, dressed in black and dubbed ‘Ninjas’ by Emeraux, forced Kabuga’s front door at 6 a.m.
“Kabuga didn’t put up any resistance,” Emeraux said. He was formally identified in a DNA test, matching against a sample taken when he was hospitalised in Germany in 2007, Emeraux added.
Kabuga’s arrest marked the end of a more than two-decade-long hunt that spanned Africa and Europe. Kabuga had 28 known aliases and was using a passport from an African country, Emeraux said.
Altit said Kabuga would be arraigned before a Paris court on Tuesday.
The court will set out the legal process before passing the case to investigative judges within eight days. The judges will decide whether to hand Kabuga to the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. If Kabuga appeals against their ruling, the matter will go France’s Court of Cassation, which hears whether rulings conform with the law.
Kabuga’s ability to hide to evade an international manhunt for more than 20 years has raised questions over whether he had accomplices outside of his family.
“It is difficult to imagine he could have escaped into French territory without the help of accomplices,” said Patrick Baudoin of the International Federation for Human Rights. The federation has supported survivors in the prosecution of other Rwandan genocide suspects living in France.
Reporting by Tangi Salaun with additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich