JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The suspicious death of Rwanda's former spy chief in a plush Johannesburg hotel is resurrecting allegations that Western-backed President Paul Kagame is orchestrating a campaign to kill opponents at home and abroad.
South African police opened a murder investigation after former Col. Patrick Karegeya's body was discovered on New Year's Day.
"He was found in the hotel room dead on the bed," said police spokeswoman Lt. Col. Katlego Mogale. "A towel with blood and a rope were found in the hotel room safe. There is a possibility that he might have been strangled."
Rwandan opposition leader Theogene Rudasingwa identified the hotel as the Michelangelo Towers and called the death an assassination that fit a pattern of attacks against prominent opponents of Kagame.
"By killing its opponents, the criminal regime in Kigali (Rwanda's capital) seeks to intimidate and silence the Rwandan people into submission," he said in a statement. "The regime is hugely mistaken. Such criminal activities make Rwandan people more emboldened to struggle to remove the dictatorship."
Karegeya, 53, was a wartime ally from Kagame's days as a rebel leader but later parted ways with the Rwandan president and reportedly fled to South Africa in 2007. Karegeya told an AP journalist a month ago that his work organizing the opposition to Kagame was risky and could cost him his life. He also said his daughter's Rwandan passport was revoked on Kagame's orders while she was trying to leave Uganda, where she grew up in exile, and that Kagame blocked his own quest for work with the United Nations.
The Rwandan government vehemently denies targeting dissidents, and Rwandan High Commissioner Vincent Karega told local broadcaster eNCA on Thursday that talk of assassination is an "emotional reaction and opportunistic way of playing politics." He urged people to wait for the police report in South Africa, which has one of the world's highest murder rates.
Kagame's spokesman and Rwanda's foreign minister could not be reached by telephone and did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Kagame and his associates have governed Rwanda since his rebel forces took control 20 years ago, winning praise from Western leaders who point to how he has turned around an impoverished and war-ravaged nation into an efficient technology hub. Rwanda has reliable electricity and road systems and some of the highest rates of literacy and good health in Africa. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited the country with his daughter, Chelsea, in August, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a frequent guest.
Critics, however, say those successes have come at the cost of a ruthless dictatorship. Kagame has won elections but without opposition, because its leaders were either jailed or in exile.
Kagame has long been accused of extra-territorial killings, including ones committed when Karegeya was the feared boss of Rwanda's external security agency.
In 1996, former Interior Minister Seth Sendashonga and businessman Augustin Bugirimfura were gunned down in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Kenya detained a Rwandan diplomat briefly and then released him — under pressure from Kagame, dissidents contend. Also in Nairobi, legislator and former government intelligence chief Theoneste Lizinde was killed in 1998. Two years later, presidential adviser Assiel Kabera was shot and killed in Rwanda, reportedly by men in military uniform.
Gunmen twice tried to kill Kagame's former chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, while he was living in exile in Johannesburg in 2010. Nyamwasa told The Associated Press in 2012 that Kagame has hunted him and other dissidents around the world, "using hired killer squads."
Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up of members of the Tutsi tribe, came to power in 1994 when it ended the genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. Then the RPF invaded eastern Congo, ostensibly to kill members of the Hutu tribe blamed for the genocide, leading forces in a war that pulled in eight African nations in what became a scramble for Congo's fabulous mineral wealth.
Inside Rwanda, opposition to the new government at first came almost exclusively from Hutus, who make up 84 percent of the country's population of 12 million people. But in recent years, it's increasingly come from former Kagame allies like Karegeya, Rudasingwa and others who contend that the brutal suppression of Hutus will inevitably lead to another genocide of minority Tutsis.
Karegeya and Nyamwasa were among four top former Rwandan Tutsi army officers who formed an opposition party in exile in 2010. The following year, they were sentenced in absentia to long jail terms for allegedly provoking ethnic tensions and endangering state security with grenade attacks in Kigali.
Some analysts and Rwandan dissidents and analysts accuse Western leaders of pandering to Kagame because of their feelings of guilt over failing to end the genocide. And Kagame, who blames French troops for allowing alleged Hutu killers to escape into Congo, played to British and American interests when he changed Rwanda's official language from French to English.
Rudasingwa said international support for Kagame is helping "to put Rwanda on a course for another bloody conflict, but the international community appears to not be interested."
Associated Press writers Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda and Hrvoje Hranjski in Bangkok, Thailand contributed to this report. Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.