French judge Marc Trevidic conducts his investigation into the April 1994 crash on September 16, 2010.

Story highlights

The crash killed the then-presidents of Rwanda and Burundi

It sparked a wave of mass killings in Rwanda; some 800,000 died

The downing of the plane was a Hutu coup d'etat, foreign minister says

Paris CNN  — 

The missile that brought down the plane carrying the president of Rwanda more than 17 years ago was fired from a camp controlled by his own ethnic group and not by Tutsi rebels, attorneys for the rebels said Wednesday.

The April 1994 crash of the plane near the capital, Kigali, and the death of then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, a member of the Hutu majority, was followed hours later by the start of mass killings. By the time they ended 100 days later, 800,000 people had died.

Most of the dead were members of the country’s Tutsi minority, who were killed by Hutus.

The killing of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu militants ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front – composed of Tutsis under the leadership of current President Paul Kagame – halted the Hutu militants.

Also on board the plane was then-Burundi President Cyprian Ntayamira. Ntayamira was also a Hutu.

A report on the plane attack – written as part of a French judicial investigation – has not been released publicly. However, officials said experts appointed by French Judges Marc Trevidic and Nathalie Poux had identified Kanombe Military Barracks as the site from which the rocket was launched.

The Kanombe camp at the time was controlled by “Hutu extremists in the former Rwandan army and their European advisers,” said Bernard Maignain and Leon-Lef Forster, attorneys for the Rwandan Patriotic Front, in a statement. “The responsibility of the RPF in the attack is therefore dismissed.”

The experts and judges traveled to Rwanda in September 2010 to view the scene of the attack, the attorneys said. Once there, they had the opportunity to conduct field surveys and simulations, and “they could also hear eyewitnesses who saw or heard the firing of missiles.

“It is clear from their analysis that the probable location of firing was strictly inaccessible at the time to the men of the RPF,” Maignain and Forster said.

In 2006, French Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who was previously in charge of the investigation, requested arrest warrants against nine Rwandan nationals belonging to the RPF, according to Maignain and Forster. Seven people are still “under investigation,” they said, but they also accused the former judge of dismissing all evidence suggesting the RPF might not have been the perpetrators of the attack.

The latest report, the attorneys noted, is a “turning point.”

The French Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report, saying it was part of a judicial investigation started because the crew members of the downed plane were French.

Asked about the Rwandan opposition’s request for an international inquiry into the report, the ministry said France supports the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as a means to shed light on the Rwandan killings.

Rwanda’s government welcomed the report.

“The crash served as an excuse for key perpetrators to execute a meticulously planned genocide against the Tutsi,” the government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation said in a statement.

The plane, which was struck as it prepared to land at Kigali International Airport, was bringing Habyarimana home from negotiations over the Arusha peace accords, which had created a power-sharing government between rebels and the Rwandan government.

“Today’s findings constitute vindication for Rwanda’s long-held position on the circumstances surrounding events of April 1994,” said Louise Mushikiwabo, foreign minister and government spokeswoman, in the statement.

“With this scientific truth, Judges Trevidic and Poux have slammed shut the door on the 17-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’etat carried out by extremist Hutu elements and their advisers who controlled Kanombe Barracks.”

CNN’s Niki Cook contributed to this report.