By Thierry Lévêque
PARIS (Reuters) - A French probe into what sparked the 1994 Rwandan genocide appears to exonerate current President Paul Kagame and his Tutsi allies after Paris had previously accused him of triggering the killing of 800,000 people in 100 days.
Diplomatic relations between Rwanda and France were broken off in 2006 when a French judge said Kagame, the rebel leader at the time of the killings, had orchestrated the assassination of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana to trigger the bloodshed.
After Habyarimana's plane was shot down, Hutu extremists slaughtered Tutsis and moderate Hutus in some of the fastest mass killings ever perpetrated. Kagame's Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front seized power in the aftermath of the genocide.
Kagame has accused former French President Francois Mitterrand's administration of training and arming the Hutu militias responsible for the slaughter.
A team of French investigators, led by two judges, re-examined a dozen eyewitness testimonies to work out where the two missiles that brought down Habyarimana's Dassault Falcon 50 plane were fired from, in an effort to determine final responsibility. Both sides had bases near the airport.
The judges on Tuesday presented their report to Kagame's lawyers, who told media that they had concluded the shots could not have come from a military base occupied by Kagame's supporters. The findings did not specifically point the finger at the Hutus.
"Today's findings constitute vindication for Rwanda's long-held position on the circumstances surrounding events of April 1994," said Rwanda Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo in a statement.
"With this scientific truth, Judges Trévidic and Poux have slammed shut the door on the seventeen-year campaign to deny the genocide or blame its victims.
"It is now clear to all that the downing of the plane was a coup d'état carried by extremist Hutu elements and their advisers who controlled Kanombe Barracks."
However, Jean-Yves Dupeux, a lawyer for Habyarimana's children, said the findings did not support the Rwandan government's account.
"The findings cannot point the finger at the Hutu camp," he said. "What the experts are saying is that the shots could not have been fired from Paul Kagame's camp. That doesn't mean it is the other side."
A probe by the Rwandan government in January 2010 blamed extremists within Habyarimana's inner circle for downing the plane, saying the murder was designed to scuttle a planned power-sharing deal and act as a pretext for the genocide.
According to the Rwandan inquiry set up by Kagame - known as the Mutsinzi report - Rwanda Armed Forces (FAR) troops stationed in the Kanombe barracks near the airport fired the surface-to-air rockets, the culmination of months of planning.
French Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere's 2006 report said Kagame was responsible, arranging for the plane to be shot down to trigger reprisal killings between ethnic Tutsi and Hutu and give his RPF rebels and allies grounds to take power by force.
Paris began to normalize its relations with Rwanda after President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007.
In February 2010 the French president on a trip to Kigali said Paris had made serious errors of judgment over the massacre and wanted to ensure all those responsible for the slaughter were caught and punished.
On Kagame's first state visit to France since the genocide in September he emphasized his trip was aimed at building economic and commercial ties, appearing to accept that an apology from Paris was no longer a prerequisite for restoring diplomatic ties.
(Additional reporting By Graham Holliday in Kigali; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Peter Graff)